Why Government Must Declare Home-based Beedi Rolling As Hazardous

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The beedi industry in India employs nearly seven million workers in a predominantly unorganised sector comprising mostly home-based women from poor households. These women beedi workers are vulnerable due to low wage rate, hazardous work environment, systemic exploitation, precarious employment, lack of social security and limited access to various welfare schemes. However, their aspiration to shift to safer and more rewarding alternative livelihoods is met with many obstacles such as: low education level, inadequate skill adaptability, credit availability and lack of in-demand vocational training, etc. A majority of these obstacles can be attributed to lacunae in research on the subject (e.g., data, knowledge and policy, etc.). These findings are brought by a recent study, undertaken by a group of researchers of AF Development Care (AFDC), a New Delhi-based research agency. This report made an honest attempt to analyse policies, existing programs (including, but not limited to, their impact at both national and state levels) and related initiatives by different institutions on the alternative livelihood options for women beedi rollers in India to identify knowledge and policy gaps through a critical review of the existing literature. The study took Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as the two states to go into in-depth.

 Exploring the Knowledge Gap

The critical review in this report shows that existing research on women beedi rollers in India are largely narrative and do not go beyond the issues of assessing their socio-economic and living conditions; exploitative employment and occupational hazards. Although previous studies have quantified these problems with some success, they have failed to highlight the factors responsible for their vulnerability. These studies have recommended to ameliorate their conditions through traditional mechanisms, but overlooked the need for their complete transition from a hazardous occupation to something better. This report also finds that research on socio-economic conditions of beedi rollers is over searched and has been repeated across different parts of the country. However, due to the invariable association of poverty and desperation with the beedi industry, these findings are very similar. Workers strongly feel that beedi rolling cannot provide them with anything more than basic sustenance.  This speaks volumes about our failure as a nation to engage a majority of our women workers and ensure a safe and productive work environment for them. Many research studies have found that beedi rollers and tendu leaf pluckers, comprising mostly of women and children, are among the most exploited workers in the country. In addition to earning very low wages, they are unable to access healthcare facilities and have virtually no voice to ask for their rights. It is no surprise that a majority of them desire to shift from their occupation to better alternative livelihoods. However, such livelihood options for women beedi workers are almost non-existent and no study on their transition from beedi rolling to other professions (including the enabling factors) has been undertaken in the last two decades. The focus of the existing literature on occupational health hazards faced by beedi workers has been limited to enumerating the problems and diseases and studies about the medical expenses incurred by them are scarce. Medical expenditure on work-related illnesses far outweighs their earning from beedi rolling and such information might convince women beedi rollers to become aware of the seriousness of their occupational vulnerabilities. Understanding the reasons behind women beedi rollers not adopting alternative livelihood options is crucial for designing any economic action plan for them. Such options must be identified based on the workers’ skill level in a local context and beedi workers should be organised nation-wide in their demand for alternative livelihood. These reasons remain unexplored in existing works in India so far. There is no systemic study, undertaken to show whether total earning of beedi workers have increased after shifting to alternative livelihoods.

Also Read: The Fearless & Tireless Beedi Rollers of Mahoba

Occupational Health Hazard issue is Covered Up in the Past

The women beedi rollers face enormous occupational health hazards and they spend about 29.2% of their income from beedi rolling on medical expenses, says the AFDC study report “Women Beedi Rollers and Alternative Livelihood options”, published by AF Development Care, a New Delhi-based research consulting agency. These findings are brought by analysing primary data collected from 496 women respondents from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, which include 400 beedi rollers and 96 former beedi rollers (who are currently engaged in alternative occupations). Weakness, breathing difficulties, lower back pain cough, bronchitis, body ache, body ache, abdominal pain, etc., were found to be the major health problems, women beedi rollers are facing.  The study further says that these workers spend an average of Rs.7248/- per year which constitutes 29.2% of their annual beedi-rolling income.

 Health problems of women beedi rollers (N = 400)- Primary Study data from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu

Health problems % of workers
Never Rarely Sometimes Frequently Always
Weakness/tired 13.5 17.8 23.8 22.3 22.8
Nausea/vomiting 37.0 20.5 29.0 7.8 5.8
Breathing difficulty 17.0 22.3 42.3 10.8 7.8
Itching 30.3 20.5 31.8 12.0 5.5
Increased sweating 41.5 12.3 23.5 18.0 4.8
Poor appetite 34.5 18.8 33.8 8.5 4.5
Sleeplessness 39.8 22.8 18.5 5.8 13.3
Lower back pain 13.0 23.0 18.8 8.8 36.5
Eye problem 41.0 18.0 19.3 7.0 14.8
Burning in the throat 36.0 31.8 30.3 1.5 0.5
Cough 29.5 23.5 33.8 8.0 5.3
Bronchitis 8.3 26.3 47.3 14.5 3.8
Body ache 8.0 21.5 27.0 18.0 25.5
Abdominal pain 25.0 21.0 35.3 13.0 5.8

(AF Development Care, 2020)

In the above findings, it is clear that beedi rolling causes serious occupational health hazard as these workers are constantly exposed to dust, fumes and other dangerous chemicals, e.g. nitrosamines; which are readily absorbed by the body through skin, respiratory epithelium and mucous membrane of mouth, nose and intestine. Medically, exposure to tobacco dust is known to affect respiratory tracts in humans. They face numerous health problems due to the direct inhalation of tobacco flakes. Majority will have problems of joint pain, eye problems, nervous and skin diseases. Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms occurring with these women beedi rollers. There are few earlier studies, which shows that these women beedi rollers are more susceptible to diseases like lumbosacral pain, gynaecological problems, fungal diseases, peptic ulcer, haemorrhoids and diarrhoea along with numbness in fingers, breathlessness and stomach pain including cramps. To provide more clarity to the issue of women beedi rollers’ health issue medically, occupational illness from beedi rolling can be classified as; Skeletomuscular- pain in shoulder, neck, knee cramps, postural problems swelling of the knee; Respiratory – TB, chronic bronchitis, asthma, breathlessness, sneezing, throat pain; Gastrointestinal – Abdominal pain, acidity, diarrhoea, vomiting, constipation; Neurological – Headache, giddiness, nausea; Ophthalmological problems – eye irritation, eye burning, eye watering; Skin callosities, nail discolouration; Cytogenetic – gynaecological problems. All most all of these women beedi workers are poor so, generally, they live in small rooms where they do the beedi rolling work and also cook, and sleep in the same room. So, in most of the cases, the disease becomes chronic. From a medical point of view, home-based beedi rolling is hazardous so, the government must take necessary steps to address this issue.

Involuntary Profession without Much Benefit

The report says about 50% of women beedi rollers are illiterate, 94% are not eligible for social security benefits and 90% do not have written job contracts. Beedi companies prefer home-based production (96% are home-based) to avoid labour laws, and 84% of home-based workers are women and 80% home-based workers live in rural areas. (Read  more about it here.)

Every single finding of this research work suggests that the government must examine the issue of declaring home-based beedi rolling as hazardous seriously.  Looking at this issue, the government must take necessary corrective steps to safeguard the interest of millions of women beedi rollers, who are involuntarily pushing them into this hazardous work and getting sick and poor. The findings of the research report say that average annual income of former beedi rollers (who have left beedi rolling and engaged in alternative occupations) is more (Rs 58,431) than the women who continue beedi rolling (Rs 24.787).  The share of average annual income from beedi rolling was much less (24%) than the income from alternative occupations (41%).  So, the research finds that the women beedi rollers, if they leave beedi rolling and get into other non-hazardous activities, their income, health will be much better than the women continue with beedi rolling work. The Urban beedi rollers are more intent on shifting to other occupations than their rural counterparts largely due to the more diverse and wider availability of income-generating activities in the urban areas.  There are nearly 60% of the women beedi rollers intended to shift to alternative occupations urgently, due to the health risk, tobacco exposure to the whole family, children in the house and exploitation from the middlemen.

Also Read: Female Workers in the Informal Sector face a larger brunt of the COVID Economic Crisis

Income from beedi rolling is too low – a paltry Rs 24,787 per year, as found in the study is also a pointer for government to shift millions of these women to other available options. Abysmal welfare benefits in the beedi industry is another big worry for women beedi rollers as the study says that there are only 47 (15 from Karnataka and 32 from Tamil Nadu) from the sample population of 400 had availed some form of benefits and none had received any financial assistance for housing or health expenses. The rampant exploitation of beedi rollers in different forms (rejection of finished beedis, low wage rate, supply of spurious materials etc.) push these women into a debt trap. The report also finds that there is a decreasing trend in work availability (236 days/year) due to shrinking demand of beedis. The younger women seem averse to taking up beedi rolling as an occupation.  The study finds a positive correlation between the income of a woman beedi roller and her ability to adopt alternative occupations. The field data suggests that a woman beedi roller’s ability to shift to alternative occupation increases by 1.104 times for every 1000 rupees of additional earning. It is also found that lack of funds or financial support (51.2%) is the major obstacle for women beedi workers to shift to alternative livelihoods, followed by lack of training (18.6%).  A majority of women beedi rollers included in this study did not want their children to roll beedis as they wanted to provide them with higher education.

The most worrying fact comes from this study is that in 97.3% cases, agent/middleman have decided the wage rate of women beedi rollers. In other words, beedi workers have hardly any bargaining power while fixing the wage rate. In about 58.5 % cases, workers had reported a non-revision of the wage rate for the last 6 to 12 months. There are nearly 71% beedi rollers spent about 5-8 hours/day in beedi rolling and worse is that there are 80.8% women beedi rollers work under middleman.

Government has to do more for these Vulnerable Women

The share of beedi-rolling income to total family income varies between 20-31%. Therefore, women beedi rollers most likely want to quit hazardous occupation of beedi rolling for other alternative livelihood options, provided there is enough scope and facilitation available for such options.  According to this report, Ministry of Labour and Employment (MOL&E) has initiated a skill development programme in collaboration with the Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship and National Skill Development Corporation to provide alternative livelihood to beedi workers and their dependents. However, 461 of the 3620 beedi workers trained under the programme shifted to alternative livelihoods by December 2018. But, during 2019 calendar year, a total of 2223 beneficiaries have been trained and 1025 of them were shifted to other jobs. But the question is with such speed at government level, when can these vast group of women get access to training and have a choice of their livelihood.

Government of India must speed up its reskilling and upskilling program to create alternative livelihood opportunities for women beedi workers for one important reason. The reason is associated with their vulnerability due to low wages, lack of social protection, unhealthy working conditions and exposure to various health risks, systemic exploitation, precarious employment, and limited access to various welfare schemes.

The report says that the provision of alternative livelihood should be guided in a local context (e.g., availability of raw materials, demand of the product, marketability) and women’s capacity. Orientation/training programs may be organised to enhance the workers’ skill level to undertake income-generating activities. Government must put the provision of easier access to credit, skill training and technology to encourage self-employment among the women beedi rollers.

Sachi Satapathy is principal investigator of a report on women beedi rollers, and director of AF Development Care, Delhi. The views expressed are the author’s own.

*The report is scheduled to be published in January 2021.

Picture Credit: npr.org