Low wages, high health costs: Poor, marginalised women beedi rolling workers face acute exploitation

Over seven million workers, most of them women, are involved in beedi rolling in India with 96 per cent working from the confines of their homes. These poor women workers, about five million in number, barely earn Rs 20 per 500 beedis and suffer various health problems including breathing difficulties, joint pains and fading fingerprints.

Sarah Khan
| Updated: August 31st, 2020

Photo: Lillie Klein/flickr

Mariammal was eight years old when she started to roll beedi by wrapping tobacco flakes in tendu leaf (Diospyros melanoxylon) to assist her mother sustain their family of eight, including an alcoholic father. After more than three decades of beedi rolling, she is finally out of the drudgery and now works as a sanitation worker with a private firm in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. 

“I gave up beedi rolling after thirty two years. In the process, I encountered a lot of health problems and even now I have difficulty breathing in case I speak for long,” Mariammal, a resident of Ukkirankottai village in Tirunelveli told Gaon Connection

For the last three years, she has been working as a road sweeper. But, this switch in livelihood from a beedi rolling worker to a sanitation worker wasn’t easy. 

There are millions of poor in the country, mostly women, who are still dependent on beedi rolling, associated with serious occupational health hazards, to feed their families. Every year, between 750 billion and 1 trillion beedi sticks are smoked in India by nearly eight per cent of the population, which makes beedis twice as popular as cigarettes. 

Farida Kengeri, beedi worker in Bengaluru, Karnataka.

As per the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Indian government estimates 4.5 million beedi workers in India, majority of who are home based women workers. Another study claims that apart from poor women, more than 1.7 million children are involved in beedi rolling in the country. But, trade unions claim there could be about seven to eight million beedi workers, especially if those engaged in beedi trade and the tendu leaf collection are also taken into account.

To make beedis, tendu leaf is first soaked in water and then dried. This is followed by the cutting of leaf, filling it with tobacco dust and rolling. This activity is related to a large number of health problems, such as chest pain, breathing difficulty, leg and back pain,  tuberculosis, asthma, anemia, etc.

A recent report, “Knowledge Gap in Existing Research on India’s Women Beedi Rollers & Alternative Livelihood Options: A Systematic Review for Promoting Evidence-Informed Policy and Prioritizing Future Research”, by AF Development Care, a New Delhi-based research consulting group, there are about seven million beedi workers in the country, of which five million (over 71 per cent) are women. There are other reports that claim “women comprise around 90 per cent of total employment in beedi manufacture”.

Many tribal women are into tendu leaves collection.

About 96 per cent of the total workforce in the beedi sector is home-based, while a mere four per cent works at the factories. 

Interestingly, after a drop in the number of beedi workers in the country, their percentage has again increased. The recent report found the number of beedi workers decreased from 4.47 million in 1993-94 to 4.27 million in February 1997, but increased to about 4.8 million in 2018. This shows that there is an overall increase of beedi workers by 1.5-2.1 million during 1993 to 2018.

However, there has also been a significant reduction (close to a million) in the number of beedi workers in the two southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. In Tamil Nadu alone, half a million beedi rolling women have shifted to other occupations. And in Karnataka the decrease is 0.1 million beedi workers. This trend is attributed to the pro-women policies implemented in these southern states.

The AF Development Care report found a majority (53.8 per cent) of women beedi rollers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu intended to urgently shift to other occupations. But, the rate of shifting to other income sources declined with beedi worker’s age. Similarly, urban beedi rollers were more keen on shifting to other occupations than their rural counterparts owing to more diverse options of income generating activities in urban areas. 

E Regina, beedi worker, Tamil Nadu.

The positive shift

The AF Development Care report mentions that reduction in the number of women beedi workers can be attributed to the success of different women-focused programmes and long-term policy changes adopted by successive governments in the southern states over the last three decades. 

Policy changes have provided them alternative options to shift to other economically viable and non- hazardous professions.

For example, Tamil Nadu, which has reported the maximum reduction (541,000) in the number of beedi workers has the distinction of having the largest share of establishments under women entrepreneurs (13.51 per cent) in India, whereas Karnataka has been successful in implementing its gender budgeting proposals which was adopted in 2006-07.

In 2018-19, the Karnataka government approved employment of women workers in night shifts, thus giving them more choices and freedom to work. Such positive indicators and moves have provided space for women in the workforce in the southern states.

Take the case of 41-year-old Muthu Saraswati, a resident of Vadakku Vagaikulam village of Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu. She rolled beedis for 11 years and suffered acute body pains before starting her tailoring business from home in 2015. Her income has increased drastically from Rs 100-150 per week to Rs 400 per week. Due to the lockdown, her husband lost his job and she is now the sole bread-winner of her family. “I left beedi rolling because of constant body pain but now my health has become better and income has improved. My daughters are studying well so I am content,” she told Gaon Connection.

As per the AF Development Care report, most of these women who have quit beedi rolling now have their own land or are employed in the agricultural industry. A large number of them have benefited from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and some are employed in the government and private sectors.

G Pushpavalli, Ukkirankottai, Tiruneveli, Tamil Nadu.

Informal, exploitative and a health hazard

No doubt in the last two decades, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have witnessed a positive trend of shift in the women from beedi making to different occupations, this industry remains largely informal and its women workers at the receiving end of exploitation from intermediaries/brokers.  The recent research found that “while about 96% of the total beedi workforce in India are home-based, a mere 4% work in factories. Only 62.5% of beedi workers have ID cards, which shows that about 37.5% beedi rollers do not have any formal recognition in the industry.”

This can be mainly attributed to the fact that most women carry on the activities within the four walls of their homes.  Women employed under this occupation belong to socially backward communities. For instance, other backward classes (37 per cent) comprise the largest number of women beedi workers in India.

As per the AF Development Care report, 94 per cent women beedi workers in the unorganized sector are not eligible for any social security benefits compared to 47 per cent in the organised sector. Similarly, 97 per cent and 90 per cent women beedi workers are not eligible for paid leave in the unorganised and organised sectors, respectively. 

A majority of women beedi rollers in the unorganised sector are paid a very low wage on piece rates. Even in the organised sector, one per cent women workers are paid monthly basis and a majority of them (42 per cent) are paid on a piece-rate basis while a majority of women beedi rollers in the unorganised sector are paid a very low wage on piece rates. For instance, Mariammal and Muthu Saraswati earned as low as Rs 35 or Rs 20 per 500 beedis and managed to earn Rs 100-150 per week as beedi rollers.

Photo: Plan Asia/flickr

“The reason why beedi rolling is done from home is because it prevents women from availing welfare and social security schemes of the government and beedi owners make profit at their expense through middle-men. This process exposes the entire family to tobacco and poses health risks for everyone,” Sachi Satpathy, director of AF Development Care and the lead author of the recent report told Gaon Connection. He emphasised the government needs to identify home-based beedi rolling as hazardous.

The report documents the health risks involved in the beedi making process. These include women workers facing weakness, breathing difficulties, lower back pain, cough, bronchitis, body-ache, abdominal pain. Almost 30 per cent of their annual income, the women beedi rolling workers spend on their health issues.

According to Anant Bhan, a researcher on global health, bioethics and health policy, multiple factors make beedi rolling a health hazard. “Sitting in one position impacts their posture. Moreover, there are implications on their physical health because the use of a cloth mask is not the norm so even a non-smoker ends up inhaling nicotine, a component of tobacco, which can have its own side-effects as well,” he told Gaon Connection.

There is an urgent need to make beedi rolling a part of the formal economy with proper wages and access to supportive healthcare, health check-ups to mitigate the impact on beedi rolling on the health of poor women and kids, he added.

Satpathy said there was a visible trend that indicated the poorest sections were targeted by the brokers who reaped benefits at the expense of poor village women. “Wherever there’s a union of a strong voice of resistance against such exploitation, these middle men move to some other poverty block. A lot of Muslim women have been at the receiving end of this exploitation because the middlemen make them believe since they can’t move out of the house so beedi making is the most viable option available to them,” he said.

The government agencies claim a number of policies and schemes have provisions for social security and financial security support for the workers. “There is a central government legislation and several state government acts towards which the authorities are working rigorously so that the benefit reaches everyone. However, unfortunately, there’s a lack of knowledge among people due to which availing the benefits become difficult for them,” B Muniraju, the deputy adviser with National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) told Gaon Connection

M Rani Tirunelveli, beedi worker, Tamil Nadu.

Government Initiatives: Are these enough?

More than five decades ago, the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966 was implemented to regulate the working conditions of beedi workers and provide for their welfare. A decade later, the Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1976 was enacted to provide for welfare schemes for the beedi workers and their families, relating to health, education, maternity benefits, group insurance, recreation, housing assistance etc. Under the fund, there are also special schemes to encourage education of children of beedi workers, especially the girl child.

However despite favourable labour laws and regulatory framework, most of these benefits have failed to reach a majority of the beedi workers. Millions of home-based women workers continue to be engaged in the informal setup with very low wages and poor working conditions.

Satpathy stated that the government’s initiatives on skill development of women beedi rollers have not been very effective. “In 2019, only 1,025 of the total 2,223 women beedi rollers [that is 46 per cent only] trained under the initiative shifted to alternative jobs. The key problem is we have five million women engaged as beedi rollers and if we continue to give training to a few thousands then how many years it will take to train them and impart a different kind of skill to them,” he wondered.

Muniraju claimed directions are provided to skill agencies to enhance the number of people enrolled by at least 15-30 per cent every year. “We have a year to year target ratio to all the departments which provide skill training, ensure skill enhancement and employment opportunities to enhance the number of people enrolled and ensure that they get dignified employment under this sector,” he said. “Additional mandates for training providers are available so that they provide employment opportunities and training. There are schemes such as MUDRA loans, stand up India and start up India which provide ample financial support to these women,” he assured. 

With over five million poor women involved in beedi rolling in the country, there is an urgent need to help them switch over to better occupations and healthier working conditions.