Saturday, May 15, 2010

Waltzing with the unions

Moving house can be fun. It can also be stress-filled and exhausting and can chew up large chunks of time without you even realising it. And, as a bonus, it can even help you shed a few kilos. I’m sure my friend Sumi over at Musings, who moved house a couple of months ago, will agree.
I imagine that in most parts of the world, when you are set to move, you get a couple of relocation companies to give you some quotes and then zero in on one where the price-value equation makes sense. The movers roll in, pack all your stuff, cart it off to your new home and, perhaps, even unpack your belongings and set it all up. At least that’s the way it happens if you can afford the prices that movers charge. And if you can’t afford movers, I guess you cart all your stuff to your new home with some help from friends and family.
In Kerala though, moving house is a bit like being part of a velichapad or temple oracle’s performance ritual. Just as you are never quite sure of what the velichapad will say or do when possessed by the deity, so too are you never sure of just how Kerala’s unique headload workers’ unions will behave.
In most parts of India, if you bring something in a truck to your house or shop or office, you can pay people to unload the stuff for you. In Kerala, such work is the exclusive preserve of members of the headload workers’ unions; and each locality in the State has its own complement of headload workers’ unions.
What that means is that you — personally — can unload your belongings from a truck, but cannot employ just anyone to do it for you. Instead, you have to employ members of the various unions to do it for you. No complications so far. Where this practice really gets interesting is that the charges for unloading your stuff are usually decided by the unions.
Things get even more interesting when you have to load or unload very heavy objects or things that require the skills of specially trained workers. In such cases, the union members do not do the work; instead they watch the work being done and are paid ‘nokku kooli’ or a wage for the privilege of viewing the work. Nokku kooli, even the unions officially agree, is illegal, but it happens.
There are, of course, ‘officially fixed’ rates for unloading various things; a price list of sorts. Most often though, what you pay for unloading your stuff depends on your negotiation skills and, more important, on the whims and fancies of the union reps in your locality. So if you get them during the ‘happy hours’ you may be socked with a whopper of a bill and then again, you may not. It’s all very unpredictable.
Which is why unloading stuff from a truck and, some times, loading it on to one, in Kerala is very similar in spirit to the velichapad’s whirls, swirls and mumbles when he is in the deity’s thrall. A dance with a blend of choreographed and spontaneous moves.

11 comments:

SunnySmile said...

Nokkukooli! Every day I open the papers to find at least one nokkukooli-related incident. One was when a housewife (forgive me for being politically incorrect) unloaded a truckload of bricks all by herself; another, more recent article, said these union guys had beaten up a woman (!!) who refused to pay them nokkukooli. And still our government is characteristically mum on the issue.
My neighbour, who works with DP World, tells us ghastly tales of the goings-on at the Vallarapadam International Transshipment Terminal. And here, we are talking of a project that garners global attention!! The MD of a prominent hospitality group in Kerala recently shared his tales of woe at his Mararikulam resort. Apparently, a group of headload workers park themselves in a coconut grove right outside the resort, smoking, gambling and generally wasting time. The moment a consignment of any sort arrives at the resort, they spring into action. No, they don't want any work, you see, just some money to watch the hotel staff unload all the stuff. It's become so much so that the hotel staff cannot even unload ice-cream cartons without nokkukooli. The only way out: get everything in and out in the dead of night when the headload workers are for sure drunk themselves to senselessness with their 'earnings'!
My stories of dealing with headload workers pale in comparison. Oh, and I can do a whole blog post or two on the attitude of certain professional movers & packers in Kerala. More on that later!

Sankar Radhakrishnan said...

@SunnyS: Oh i think we could do a book or two on Kerala's adventures with nooku kooli and the rest. I guess this is the price we have to pay for living and working in Kerala... i guess there has to be some price for the pleasure of living in GoC!
:)

Mee said...

Gosh! As it is moving homes is stressful. Added to tat these unionized workers...does not bode well:(

Sankar Radhakrishnan said...

@Mee: You haven't heard half of it! Lots of horror stories that will gnaw at you in broad daylight :))

Mee said...

O boy! Am I glad or am I glad I did not face it in any of the zillion moving of homes I have been thru inside and outside India:)

Tell, tell some of these horror stories? Whats the worst that has happened?

Sankar Radhakrishnan said...

@Mee: No horror stories here. Such stories best told face to face :)

Mee said...

Horror as in crazy bad right? not horror as in ghost scary right? If its the first look fwd to hearing such tales....

Sankar Radhakrishnan said...

@Mee: Yes, the crazy, bad sort of horror. Not the scary stuff a la Nightmare on Elm street.

Mee said...

@heeee k:) what does Nokkukooli mean?

Sankar Radhakrishnan said...

@mee: 'nokku-kooli' literally means 'a wage for looking/seeing'. So the way it works is you bring, let's say a large generator that needs cranes and stuff to be unloaded. Now the union chaps can't unload it - too heavy for them. so you use the cranes and instead give them nookkukooli to let you unload it. See, simple, no? One example... BTW it's supposed to be illegal, but... :)

Mee said...

Wow! This is as bad as the zamindaar autocracy! They sure must be powerful these unions.