Bidi workers are among the most exploited in terms of wages and work hours, notes a study

Forced to endure long work hours, ignorant of the various schemes introduced for their welfare and with no access to minimum wages – the bidi workers in Uttar Pradesh (the State which has the maximum number of persons engaged in this profession) remain unable to reap the benefits of government programmes.

Highlighting this pitiable condition of the workers – especially women and children – a study conducted last month by Delhi’s Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), in collaboration with Lucknow’s Uttar Pradesh Voluntary Health Association (UPVHA), shows that bidi workers in Kannauj district earn as little as Rs. 25 a day.

While the minimum wages rules are openly flouted here, the study also points out that the exploited workers belong to either Muslim or Dalit communities, groups that have, historically, been subjected to deprivation.

VHAI’s executive director Bhavna Mukhopadhyay said, “Bidi rollers are one of the most exploited classes in terms of wages and a 10 hours’ work fetches them only Rs. 20-25, per day. The tobacco expenditure of such households is found to be almost equivalent to the figure they earn.”

“In fact, it would be clearly visible that in an effort to meet the ends they earn only death and disease. This is a priority concern for policy circles and programmes to shift the livelihood patterns of the bidi workers should be urgently initiated. The State should constitute a committee under the chairmanship of labour minister and should allocate a significant amount for this vocational shift,” added Ms. Bhavna.

The study was aimed at understanding the lives of those – especially women and children -- involved in the bidi industry. “It also looked at the work and health conditions of those in this labour intensive industry. Through this process we have tried to map the critical issues that they have been living with,” noted Binoy Mathew of VHAI.

Kannauj has one of the highest numbers of bidi workers in Uttar Pradesh. A total of 45 bidi workers were met for the study and according to Census 2011, Kannauj had a population of 16.58 lakh of which male and female were 8.82 and 7.75 lakh respectively.

The study found rollers are paid based on the number of bidis made and the income they earn is outrageously low, that is, Rs.50 for 1000 bidis. Although both men and women engaging in bidi work receive similar emoluments, the ‘Branjdhar’ (middle man) usually deducts an average of 100 to 150 'badly rolled' bidis. This further reduces their income to an average of Rs. 45. In short, the average per day earning of a bidi roller is between Rs. 20 to 25, irrespective of gender.

“This stands as a blatant violation of the minimum wages Acts and the official order of 2006 that calculated the wage as Rs. 60 per day (official order Ministry of Labour & Employment), Uttar Pradesh,” says Ms. Bhavna.

She adds that as per the minimum wages Act in Uttar Pradesh, the amount for bidi workers is fixed at Rs. 119.23 per day. “However, the communities consider women’s household work with no economic value and the income earned through bidi rolling is always considered supplementary income.”

“But in fact, in most of the families, the supplementary income is the real income that caters to the primary needs of the household,” notes the study.

To make matters worse, the study shows that children assist their parents and occasionally take over work when relatives are indisposed. “But we also found that children did not drop out of school. Work is done before or after school hours,” says Bhavna.

“The women and children do sit and work in the same place and position for long hours and their prolonged exposure to tobacco dust seemingly leads to various health problems such as respiratory problems, skin diseases, back ache, lethargy and general pain,” notes the study.

The team conducting the study also found that most of those engaged in the industry had breathing problems, pain and cough.

“District level data shows a high level of TB prevalence among the villagers. In addition, the bidi rolling villages are seemingly poverty stricken and the team could easily make out that the rates of malnutrition and anaemia are high among children and women,” said Mr. Mathew.

India is home to 64.26 lakh bidi workers, while 4.5 lakh live in Uttar Pradesh.

“The Government of India has enacted two important laws to ensure the welfare of bidi workers and to regulate their working environment. There is, however, very little awareness about these welfare schemes among the workers,” noted the study.