Acute labour shortage could cripple Kerala

The acute shortage of unskilled and semi-skilled workers plaguing the state is often attributed to Keralites’ aversion to manual work, but the loading and unloading sector is an exception. Ironically, it has a glut of blue collar workers.

By (T.K. Devasia)

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Published: Sun 30 Jan 2011, 1:34 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 9:44 PM

The paradox is not baffling to the people, who have had a taste of headload workers at least once in their life. Almost everybody, poor and rich, dreads this class as they treat every headload work their birth right and further most of them fix their own wage.

However, they do not mind a person engaging workers of his choice provided he pays the headload worker his due. This is called wage for watching the work or “Nokku kooli” in Malayalam. Like the work, this wage has also turned as a headload worker’s right over the years.

Though Keralites are considered the most politically enlightened lot in the country, they seldom resist the nokku kooli, which was declared as unjust by even Communist Party of India (Marxist), the biggest champion of the workers.

It’s not because the people love the toiling class but they fear their muscle power. The latest to taste this muscle power of the headload workers is the owner of an industrial group, which has been generating employment by investing in sectors, where others dread to enter.

Neither the police machinery nor the political leadership came to the rescue of Kochouseph Chittilapally, Chairman and Managing Director of the V-Guard Group when the headload workers affiliated to the pro-CPM Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU) prevented the employees of group firm, V-Star, from unloading goods in one of his depots at Cochin last week.

The hapless industrialist had to turn to the court to protect his right to engage workers of his choice without being inhibited by any claims from the “sons of the soil”. The court has ordered police to provide protection to 11 V-Star employees, who possess legally valid labour cards, to do their work.

Nobody expects the court intervention would bring an end to unjust labour practice that has been affecting the state’s attempt to attract investments into the state. The high court had passed serious strictures against the trade unions in the past over the Nokku kooli.

In 2001, while delivering judgment in the M. Jnana Prakasam Vs M. Natarajan case, the court observed: “They were considered as a group of belligerent and quarrelsome group, always charging exorbitant wages even for carrying petty loads. They enforced the wage rates prescribed by themselves by monopolising the right to do loading and unloading

work in a particular area. ‘Engage them or do not engage anybody’ was their motto. This monopoly brought in affluence and headload work became a lucrative job and this prompted many to attempt to enter the field under the leadership of rival unions.”

Captains of industry say if the practice is not ended once and for all, they will pull out their investments from the state. Kochouseph, who had set up a host of industrial units in the state because of his love for the home state, has already threatened to move them to the neighbouring states, where the labourers are friendly.

The V-Guard group owner thinks that the militant practice was thriving in the state with the patronage of political parties. He termed the CPM call to workers to end the practice a hypocrisy. “If the party means what it says, no worker would dare to continue the practice”, he added.

If the party is sincere it should divert those entering the loading and unloading sector to agricultural and construction sectors, which are facing acute shortage of workers. Though the state government has been trying to achieve food security, it has not been able to make any progress in the absence of men to till the land.

The area under food crops has been witnessing a steady fall over the years. Rice, which is the staple food of Keralites, is the biggest loser. The area under paddy has dropped from 1 million hectares in the early seventies to 234,000 hectares in 2010.

Coconut, which held the key to rural prosperity till a couple of decades ago, is also losing ground steadily due to fast dwindling number of coconut climbers.

The rubber sector has also started facing shortage of skilled workers to tap the trees. The construction sector is now dominated by labourers from Bangladesh, Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Goa, Sikkim, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

The rise of labour migration to the state has been creating tension with the influx bringing down the labour cost and the native labourers rising up against it in several places.

Economists feel that over-dependence of workers from other regions may not be sustainable in the longer run as the steady economic growth the country is witnessing now may dry up the flow to the state.

The economists, therefore, feel that the best strategy Kerala could follow in the circumstances is to re-deploy the workers along with efforts to make manual labour attractive to the educated youths. This will solve the strange irony of labour shortage and unemployment crippling the state.

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