Kerala has finally outlawed nokkukooli or, literally, “gawking wages”. From the days of militant trade unionism in Kerala, a blatantly extortionate practice had become common in the state. If you had to get any headload work (loading/shifting of goods through labour) done, you had to pay registered headload workers a certain assured wage—even when they just stood by and watched as you shifted these goods yourself or engaged your own workers or your domestic workers do this. Hence the term nokkukooli.
Even when machines were employed to do this work, the unions would demand a payment on the basis of being “denied work that was the headload workers’ by right”. The 2002 Kerala Loading and Unloading (Regulation of Wages and Restriction of Unlawful Practices) Act allowed the engagement of workers of one’s choice for unloading/loading goods in a non-domestic setting, but the extortion continued.
Atrocious as the practice sounds, it has been around for three decades. In 2015, a video of an American artist destroying parts of his art installation at Kochi-Muziris Biennale because of the exorbitant nokkukooli quoted went viral. With construction booming in the state over the last decade or so, the practice had assumed epidemic proportions. Last year, the Kerala High Court had to intervene to protect a plumbing and fire-fighting firm against nokkukooli demands and attendant threats.
So, it was not a day too soon when the Left Front government in the state decided to ban the practice. With increasing mechanisation, there may not remain many opportunities for headload work. In such a scenario, the need is for reskilling workers and flexible labour laws that encourage employment—else, unskilled labourers will be literally left gawking as the world moves past them and eking out a livelihood becomes too heavy a burden.