Citu revolution: MD turns porter - Fed up with union interference, industrialist unloads goods

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By JOHN MARY
  • Published 21.01.11
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Thiruvananthapuram, Jan. 20: The CPM may or may not return to power in Kerala in the impending elections but the Left government can end its current innings with the quiet satisfaction of having lived out a proletarian dream.

The managing director of a Rs 500-crore industrial group jumped on a van and started unloading cartons after Citu, the ruling CPM’s labour arm, prevented employees from carrying out the job.

Work is worship but what unfolded yesterday was an unusual, albeit fleeting, act of defiance in Kerala, where unionised “head-load workers” (porters) traditionally enjoy the right to extortion for doing little other than watching someone else unload goods. If the unionised porters do the work, an exorbitant amount must be paid.

The Malayalam word for the fee is “nokku kooli”, which literally means “wage for watching”. It has no legal sanction but police are not allowed to intervene in what is passed off as a “labour dispute” — a mindset that was at play in Bengal during the glory years of gherao sired by militant trade unionism.

Since the law-enforcers look the other way, many Malayalees grin and bear the forced fee and some extol it as a symbol of their socialist credentials.

But Chittilapilly Kochouseph, the industrialist who was in the news recently for donating his kidney to an innovative chain of do-gooders, did the unexpected.

Kochouseph (which means Little Joseph) is the managing director of the Kerala-based V-Guard group of companies, which makes products ranging from voltage stabilisers to digital UPS and runs amusement parks.

The dispute with the local Citu has been simmering for some months, forcing V-Star Creations, a garment manufacturer headed by his wife Sheela, to suspend work.

Citu porters had entered the godown in Kochi and made an offer few companies in Kerala would have had the nerve to refuse. The Citu porters would unload the goods coming in and the workers employed by V-Star could load those going out.

When the management and the factory workers resisted, the Citu supporters allegedly attacked them. Citu eventually said the factory workers could do the work but only after getting labour cards from a government authority.

The management secured the cards and brought the van with raw materials to the godown to resume work after six months.

But the Citu porters marched to the godown yesterday and asked themanagement to engage them or stop work till the issue was settled. Kochouseph pleaded with them to let the factory workers do the work since they had the official labour cards.

The Citu workers would have none of it. It was then that the managing director jumped on to the van and started unloading the parcels. His wife Sheela was standing nearby, so were some policemen.

For some reason, perhaps because of a realisation that elections are round the corner and the Left is on a sticky wicket in Kerala though not as badly off as its cousins in Bengal, the police then intervened.

The police brought in Tamil migrant workers who finished the rest of the work, although V-Star had enough workers.

V-Star general manager K. Vaidyanathan said the company would sue the Citu porters for obstructing work in a designated area where the unit had the right to engage its own labour force.

The “wage for watching” affects individuals as well as companies, especially when they move house or buy furniture. Unionised porters recently asked a family to pay them Rs 3,000 for carrying to the fifth floor a dining table priced at Rs 23,000 — a task that usually can be done for Rs 600-700 in Kerala.

Unnerved by the V-Star incident, industrialists in Kochi — the commercial capital of Kerala that like Bengal is trying to live down its anti-industry image and draw investments — have urged the government to intervene.

Many were surprised that Citu had targeted Kochouseph, whose companies together have an annual turnover of more than Rs 500 crore in a state that has not managed to hold back too many successful entrepreneurs.

Chief minister and CPM leader V.S. Achuthanandan said he would investigate.

But, for the moment, Citu seems to be having the last word.

Citu state general secretary M.M. Lawrence was at his sarcastic best: “It’s good that he tries his hand at lifting loads because he would then know what it’s to be a worker. But lifting loads daily can affect his health.”

Lawrence then promised to examine if his workers had breached the official policy.