On Wednesday, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government in Kerala approved a draft labour policy aimed at dispelling the popular perception that the state is hostile to investors. Releasing the draft policy, Labour Minister TP Ramakrishnan said his government was committed to ending unhealthy practices in the labour sector, simplifying the process of registration and licensing of businesses and ushering in ease of doing business.

However, trade unions complained that the policy was silent on the rehabilitation of workers who have lost or are on the verge of losing their jobs to industrial mechanisation – the change from working largely with their hands to using machinery. Hundreds of thousands of workers, particularly in the construction and head load sectors, are living in fear of losing their jobs at any time because of mechanisation, the state’s various trade bodies contended. They demanded that the government immediately address this concern.

That said, they welcomed the policy, which has several labour-friendly proposals such as fixing the daily basic minimum wage for all sectors at ₹600, implementing the Kerala Recognition of Trade Unions Act, 2010, to enhance the collective bargaining powers of workers, and setting up women-friendly workplaces. The policy also proposes establishing a strong employee-employer relationship to settle labour disputes and recommends that existing labour laws be amended to empower district labour officers to directly refer disputes to labour courts or industrial tribunals. To enhance efficiency, it aims to curb flash strikes.

“It strikes a balance between the needs of industries and the working class,” the state’s Labour Commissioner A Alexander told Scroll.in. He called the draft policy a set of guidelines that addresses the changing industrial climate in the state. He added that the government had finalised the policy after discussing it threadbare with trade unions and political parties.

Mechanisation and job losses

But the one major concern the policy does not address is mechanisation, which hangs like the sword of Damocles above the heads of workers, said Anathalavattom Anandan, veteran leader of the ruling party and state president of the Centre of Indian Trade Union, the party’s trade union wing. “It is the duty of the government to provide alternative jobs to those who lose work,” he said.

VR Prathapan of the Congress-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress said he had brought up the rehabilitation of workers during consultations with the government on the labour policy. Prathapan said the Labour Ministry was yet to come with a solid plan on this front. “We welcome other provisions in the draft labour policy, but it will not be complete without the rehabilitation clause,” he added.

MP Rajeevan, state general secretary of the Sangh Parivar-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, was in agreement. He said mechanisation has made the working class insecure and the government must take measures to dispel their fears. “For example, construction sector offered plenty of jobs, such as loading and unloading cement, metals and so on,” he said. “Now, mixed cement mixture for concrete comes directly from the factory, rendering many workers jobless. Workers in loading, unloading and construction segments are the most affected with this change.”

Alexander agreed that mechanisation had brought heavy job losses. But he said, “We cannot stop mechanisation, but we have to find alternatives. Of course, rehabilitation is part of the labour policy.”

Mechanisation has led to heavy job losses in the construction sector in Kerala. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

Abolishing Nokku Kooli

In March, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan spoke of turning Kerala into a preferred investment destination through a slew of business-friendly measures. The government took a major step in this direction on May 1 when it abolished Nokku Kooli, the practice of paying wages to workers involved in loading and unloading even for unperformed work. This move had the support of the trade unions.

Nokku Kooli dates back to the 1980s. It thrived despite the government regulating the employment of head load workers through the Head Load Workers’ Act in 1980. The Act had provisions for their welfare and for the settlement of labour disputes.

Under this practice, head load workers collected wages without doing any work in two ways. First, when a person engaged his own employees to load and unload material, the head load workers demanded gawking charges. This led to clashes and disputes many times. Second, head load workers demanded wages at worksites where work was carried out by machines. They would stall the work if their demands were not met.

Kerala has some 110,000 registered head load workers. They belong to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, Indian National Trade Union Congress, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and Swatantra Thozhilali Union, which is affiliated to the Indian Union Muslim League.

In 2002, the government enacted the Kerala Loading and Unloading (Regulation of Wages and Restriction of Unlawful Practices) Act, which allowed employers to perform loading and unloading works for non-domestic purposes either themselves or by employing workers of their choice. But even this could not put a stop to the practice of Nokku Kooli. In 2016, the Kerala High Court asked the government to take measures to curb Nokku Kooli.

Alexander credited the trade unions for the scrapping of Nokku Kooli, saying it could not have been done without their support. “It showed that there is no trade union militancy in Kerala,” he said. “Trade unions are now keen to facilitate industrial growth.”

Anandan said the lack of investments in Kerala was not because of the trade unions and that allegations of a militant workforce thwarting investment was propaganda to defame strong labour unions. Pointing a finger at the Centre, he said, “We have an anti-labour government at the Centre under [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi. Unemployment is on the rise. Industries are being shut down. So it is wrong to blame workers and trade unions in Kerala for the lack of investments.”

Flash strikes

While the trade unions stand as one on the need for workers’ rehabilitation, they are divided on one key aspect of the draft labour policy – flash strikes.

The Centre of Indian Trade Unions said there was no such thing as a flash strike today. “Flash strikes are a thing of the past,” said Anandan. “But workers should fight for their rights through legitimate means.”

However, the Indian National Trade Union Congress and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh called it the “last resort” of workers who have been denied their rights and opposed the move to curb them. “It is a worker’s weapon against injustice,” said Rajeevan of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh.