At 5 in the morning at the Chellanam beach, Kunjumon, a man in his 40s with sunbaked face and taut body, is marking attendance on a notebook. At the count of 45 names, he signals them they are in. They will ride the sea waves on a vessel he co-owns -- a 50-foot-long inboard engine boat named Behlel.

But there are more fishers eager to join aboard the vessel for the day’s job. They can’t, because there are already enough hands aboard to shoot the net and hoist the catch. If you expect them to be disheartened, they aren’t. Kunjumon jots down their names under a subhead karanila (status on shore). When the vessel is back from the hunt, the grounded fishers too can claim wage share (karapanku) along with the crew aboard.

The slogan is equality

In this place of the world, when the jobseekers outnumber jobs on most days, they share the job and the wage. “In our fishing village no boat owner will turn away a job-seeking fisherman. If the fishers are in excess of the crew needed on a boat, the surplus men will be asked to stay on the beach. And they will get a share of the catch and the sale, which is only a notch lesser than what the crew will earn by sweating out in the sea,” said Kunjumon.

The unique wage-sharing arrangement in Chellanam village, a narrow coastal landform close to Fort Kochi in Ernakulam, is a traditional system found in some closely-knit fishing communities. It means every able-bodied fisherman in this village has an assured job.

“Those who are grounded will replace the crew on board the next day and share their wages too,” which is directly proportional to the revenue of a day, said Kunjumon. It’s a kind of job guarantee scheme birthed by the community.

In Chellanam, there are around 3,000 fishermen and 63% of them work onboard vessels with ring seiners, a kind of traditional fishing net that encircles and captures pelagic shoaling fish like sardines and mackerel. But it calls for heavy muscle power -- from shooting the net to rounding up the catch, according to a research report authored by Dhiju Das P.S., Leela Edwin and Nikita Gopal of Central Institute of Fishing Technology (CIFT).

Karanila system

The labour requirement for each ring seiner vessel ranges between 55 and 60. In the long past, there were more fishers than what was needed for the ring seine vessels going out into the sea, and the community had to find a way to accommodate all. Karanila system is possibly an upshot of that. “The monsoon fishing operations are highly labour-intensive and hauling the net against the strong currents and heavy winds is quite tough. Each fishing trip takes more than 16 hours. In such a situation, there is also a need to replace tired fishermen. So the traditional system also ensures that there are men ready to fill the vacancy,” said an author, who has done extensive research on the subject. Talk the corporate human resource department lingo, the karanila system is a kind of hotdesking, which ensures work optimisation.

In Europe too

Wage-sharing as an out-of-the-box thought was adopted by some companies in the Europe during the downturn to avoid layoffs. Under the programme, employers reduce their workers’ weekly hours and pay, often by 20 or 40 per cent, and then states make up some of the lost wages. It helped the companies to retain most of their employees.

The wage-sharing system is rarely found elsewhere. "It's not there even in Vypeen," another island where fishing is woven into the daily life, said Jenson, a fisherman.

“They have fixed crew mostly,” said Omana Berley of cooperative society for fishermen in Chellanam. “In chellanam, it’s a wonderful internal arrangement by the people to fight poverty. After the hunt, the fishers are also given a clutch of sardines or mackerels, which will also meet their daily protein need."

The system also works as a buffer against unemployment during the yearly trawl ban. During the ban, when labour supply overshoots demand, fishermen from the village working aboard the trawlers join the ring seine vessels, which don’t fall into mechanised trawl category. “But, we fishermen can’t think in terms of money alone. We know our profits take a cut. But sympathy is what leads us. We employ them too,” said Kunjumon.

According to the research paper, an analysis of the working crew on the ring seine vessels in the region last year showed that for a total of 180 fishing days in a year, a total of 11,134 crew members were employed -- on an average 62 fishermen per vessel per fishing day. While the fishermen who actually went onboard earned a wage of Rs. 560 per shipping trip, the fishermen on the beach earned Rs. 460.

Changing seasons

The number of grounded fishermen fluctuates every day – depending on the season. There are more jobseekers between June and September (south-west monsoon season), which is also the peak season for ring seine fishing as the unique fish aggregation phenomenon --chakara -- occurs in the near-shore area of Kerala.

A community can also wield the stick against freeloaders. “There are punishments for men who bunk work aboard the vessel after pocketing the Karanila benefits. They will be forced to do onboard job for one continuous week. Those who refuse punishment will be black-listed. They will not get job on any other boats in future,” said Kunjumon. But regular crew members on board a vessel can opt for Karanila for reasons like illness, funeral, marriage, etc.

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