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12 May 2008 National kerala: trade unionism

Men (Not) At Work

Idling too earns them wages. It's a nasty relapse of an old Left habit.
Madhu Kapparath
All Pay, No Work

Here's why the ruling CPI(M) in Kerala wants to rein in its labour force:
  • Cases of workers charging money without doing work is on the rise
  • Even strategic organisations like the VSSC and the Kochi port are not spared
  • Labour leaders have to be paid before trucks are allowed into their premises
  • Instances of unions demanding money even when cranes are used to lift 80-tonne loads
  • Labour trouble has repelled prospective investors from the state
  • Senior CPI(M) leaders say that unfair practices by labour unions must stop

***

The trade union movement in Kerala has largely thrived on blessings from the Communist parties. Ironically, the ruling CPI(M)-led front in the state today is facing problems from the very institution it nurtured. Worker's unions have crossed all limits by making it a practice to demand money for work they are not doing. They call it 'nokku kooli', or wages for (just) looking on. While this practice has only picked up ever since the Left came to power, its latest victim is the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in Thiruvananthapuram.

It was a norm till the other day: vehicles that brought in machinery, including sophisticated equipment, to VSSC, the Indian Space Research Organisation's lead centre for launch vehicles, had to stop half a km away from its gate. They can enter only after the lorry drivers paid the union leaders nokku kooli. The government eventually saw the ludicrous aspect of it—state industry minister Elamaram Kareem, himself a trade unionist, intervened and stopped it.

There is no guarantee, though, that it won't be revived. "I just can't wish away all this," ISRO chief G. Madhavan Nair told Outlook. "My only prayer is that they spare the prestigious Indian Institute of Space Sciences and Technology (close to the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre at nearby Valiyamala) for which work is to start next month. The problem is it has to be completed in 12 months and any wrangling by the labour could either delay the project or jack up the civil costs by 20 to 30 per cent."

Whether it be the airport, hospitals, IT, construction or the tourism sector, nokku kooli has become a ubiquitous menace. It is rampant in the loading/ unloading sector—be it at strategic facilities or power projects, be it in the Gulf money-fed northern town of Kozhikode or the booming port city of Kochi. Head-loaders, who deem all loading/ unloading anywhere in the state to be their prerogative, simply insist on a cut even if the load is too heavy or sensitive for them to handle. The 'we won't work but you still pay' principle rules.

The unethical practice has earned Kerala the dubious reputation of being hostile to investors. Already, labour is expensive in Kerala and nokku kooli raises the costs further. Recently, in one of his most candid admissions, Communist Party of India (Marxist) state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan said "wages are for those who do their work and not for those who just hang around." Pinarayi, a known foe of the more old-school figure of CM V.S. Achuthanandan, questioned how a certain section thought nokku kooli was part of its right. "While unions are progressive in their slogans, they must examine why they don't practise what they preach."

Pinarayi's blunt words invited a flurry of reactions—for and against. Opposition leader and former CM Oommen Chandy termed it "belated wisdom". All the same, he welcomed it since it "augurs well for Kerala". The head-load workers are hardly amused, although no one has protested.

There's support for Pinarayi from within the Left. Says finance minister Thomas Issac: "Instead of questioning his motives, we must look at the wisdom in what Pinarayi says. " Adds cooperation minister G. Sudhakaran: "Trade unions, which had been set up to end the exploitation by the monopolists and to work for people's welfare, are now looting the masses."

Nokku kooli often enjoys a quasi-statutory status. The wages list finalised by the Head-load Workers Welfare Fund Board in an industrial zone in Kochi shows Rs 200 per load of ready-mix concrete. This, when the entire process is machine-driven. Here, nokku kooli gets into the statute book. Similarly, one tipper load (lorry which can mechanically tip the load) fetches Rs 15 for the union. At least 1,000 tipper lorries are at work in the Vallarpadom container trans-shipment terminal site in Kochi. Yet another example was in Idukki. Power minister A.K. Balan publicly censured head-load workers who took Rs 3,000 each as nokku kooli while cranes installed some 14 turbines, each weighing 80 tonnes, atop 120-ft towers, for a windmill farm.

Even as Pinarayi spoke of not tolerating the unethical practice, three containers with pvc pipes from Chandigarh were stranded outside Thiruvananthapuram. Reason: non-payment of (exorbitant) wages. It took a nearly 10-day wait and an intervention by the labour officer for the unloading to start—but only after the container drivers paid Rs 4,000. But the same work gets done for a fraction of it in, say, Chandigarh.

Now that a sharp political consensus has evolved on ending unethical labour practices, especially when the Left coalition is in power, there's a flash of hope. There's not been a whimper of protest against Pinarayi's outburst. The big question is the motive behind it: is it because his party is in power that he wants improved labour ethic or is it because of the impending Lok Sabha elections? If Pinarayi wanted to end nokku kooli, a mere fiat from the akg Centre, the CPI(M)'s state headquarters, would have done the trick, say his detractors. But Pinarayi brushes aside the sceptics. The CPI(M), he feels, can no longer be blind to what is going on.

READ MORE IN:
AUTHORS: John Mary
PLACES: Kerala
SECTION: National
OUTLOOK: 12 May, 2008
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