Kerala High Court: Commenting on the history of militant trade unionism in the State of Kerala Devan Ramachandran, J. called it an impediment to emergence of State of Kerala an investor-friendly destination. The Bench remarked,
“The past experience shows that the headload workers would approach a business concern or an industry and demand that they be engaged in the loading and unloading works; and should they face any resistance, violence and intimidation could be the result.”
Militant Trade Unionism
The Bench was dealing with the issue of misuse of the Headload Workers Act which contains a specific scheme, by which a headload worker can seek employment; and if any employer illegally refuses to engage headload works, the latter can approach the Head Load Workers Welfare Fund Board and seek redressal as per law. However this was not the manner in which normally headload workers or Unions ensure that they get employment and they rather use force or unleash intimidation and thus force the employer to achieve to their demands.
In the instant case the allegation was that the headload workers had obstructed the vehicles of the petitioner in spite of the interim orders granted to the petitioner, similarly, members of a particular pool of headload workers trespassed and assaulted the workers and damaged properties in another case.
Though, the Government had issued circulars banning the demand of “gawking wages”, but they did not deal with militant trade unionism, which was exhibited in cases where an employer rightly or wrongly refuses to engage a headload worker. Ironically, the unions maintained that they had not sought for any Gawking charges (demand for money without being employed), but there was an attempt to justify obstructionist and violent acts to gain employment by relying on the statutory scheme under the Headload Workers Act.
Steps Taken by the State
To tackle the issue at hand the State had come up with following suggestions:
- To set up Call Center in the office of the Labour Commissioner in the State to take immediate action on the issues related to unlawful demand of wages by the Head Load Workers including Nokkukooli.
- In case of any serious irregularities on the part of the workers, action would be taken including cancellation of the registration card of the Head Load Workers as per Section 26A (4) of the Kerala Headload Workers Act.
- In addition, complaints of harassment, intimidation or assault by the employer to be referred to the police to take appropriate legal action.
- Boards displaying the loading and unloading charges had been set up at major intersections to bring to the notice of the public regarding the loading and unloading rates
Analysis and Suggestions
Opining that if the provisions of the Headload Workers Act are implemented properly, then the impression of Kerala having a militant trade unionism would vanish without much of a delay, as in the event of any employer refusing to engage a headload worker, the consequences could not be violence but legal proceedings initiated before the Board, which will then lead to the statutory remedies under the Act, the Bench remarked,
“Government must try to rectify; by taking the Trade Unions into confidence and convincing them that violence is not the answer to every ill in society, particularly in a civilized nation like ours.”
The Bench stated that the real remedy in ensuring that entrepreneurs and industries are not intimidated from coming and operating in Kerala is by ensuring that there is a peaceful atmosphere in the realm of Labour and employment scenario; and to a larger extent, this will be possible only if it is ensured that the headload workers and their Unions act totally within the confines of the Headload Workers Act, Rules and such other applicable Statutes. Emphasising on the urgency to address the issue, the Bench expressed,
“I do not think that Kerala can afford to wait any further, because otherwise, the inveterate tendencies would become difficult to be rooted out and the situations will only deteriorate as we go along.”
Noticing the gravity of the situation the Bench, though appreciated measures taken by the government, it further emphasised over the need for stringent steps to drive home the point that no headload workers or their Unions can take law into their own hands or unleash violence or such other conduct even if they are denied employment by an employer illegally; and that in such event, they must certainly engage the Board and seek redressal by law, otherwise, the Court remarked,
“Every time there is a violent incident, it will be treated only as a routine law and order issue and would then be consigned to the litigative chapters, as being as one among the many.”
As far as Gawking charges (Nokku kooli) were concerned, the Court declared that any such demand by any person, headload worker, Union was illegal and unlawful; and consequentially directed the competent Station House Officers of the area concerned, to take stringent and strict action – including under the various provisions of the Indian Penal Code, depending upon the nature of the allegations – thus ensuring that the perpetrators were brought to book without any lenience – industry.
While with regard to specific facts of the case, the Bench directed the petitioner not to engage any person from outside the pool maintained by the Board for loading and unloading work since, the area in question was admittedly covered by a Scheme under the Headload Workers Act. The headload worker or Union were directed to bring the contrary actions of the petitioner to the notice of the Board, who was directed to take necessary action in terms of law. [T.K.Sundaresan v. District Police Chief, WP(C) NO. 17866 of 2021(G), decided on 07-10-2021]
Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has reported this brief.
Counsels for the Petitioners: Manoj Ramaswamy, Jolima George, Jisha Sasi, C.B.Sabeela and Chinnu Rose Mary Thomas
Counsels for the Respondents: Government Pleader