Serious health hazards force women beedi workers in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka to quit profession amid COVID-19

A research study found that a large number of workers frequently suffer cough, fatigue, body ache, etc. Worryingly, the study also found that they spend an average of Rs 7,248 per year on medical expenses, which amounts to 29.2 percent of their annual income

Neerad Pandharipande September 16, 2020 20:27:49 IST
Serious health hazards force women beedi workers in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka to quit profession amid COVID-19

Wheezing has been persistent for 38-year-old A Kowsalya, a beedi roller from Tamil Nadu, who suffers because her job has become an inescapable reality. Her doctor has advised her to take a break from the occupation, but this is an option she can ill-afford.

"If I stop doing this work even for a while, the contractors will stop giving me work altogether. How will I sustain my family then?” she asks. Kowsalya, a resident of Nettur village in Tirunelveli district, earns a meagre Rs 140 for every set of one thousand beedis she rolls. This income, along with her husband’s who works as a coolie, is what keeps the household running. The COVID-19 lockdown has meant lesser work and dwindling earnings for the couple, and they worry about how they will pay their two sons’ school fees in the future.

Kowsalya is one of 460 women interviewed by AF Development Care, a New Delhi-based research consulting agency, for a study on the living conditions of beedi workers in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Out of the total respondents, 400 women presently work as beedi rollers while the remaining 60 have now left the occupation.

What did the study find:

The research found that a large number of workers frequently suffer from cough, fatigue, body ache, etc. Worryingly, the study also found that they spend an average of Rs 7,248 per year on medical expenses, which amounts to 29.2 percent of their annual income they earn through the occupation.

Serious health hazards force women beedi workers in Tamil Nadu Karnataka to quit profession amid COVID19

R Amutha, 48, has been rolling beedis for thirty years now, and earns Rs 200 for every set of 1,000 hand-rolled cigarettes. Neerad Pandharipande

While the exorbitant yearly health expense is one indicator of how the job takes a toll on the workers, many women also listed out other serious health issues that came with the occupation. ‘Lower back pain’ was the ailment that was most widely cited, with as many as 45.3 percent of the women saying that they suffered it either ‘frequently’ or ‘always.’

Similarly, 43.5 percent of the respondents experienced body ache either ‘frequently’ or ‘always’. For other symptoms of ill health such as breathing difficulty, cough and abdominal pain, the corresponding figures are 18.6 percent, 13.3 percent and 18.8 respectively.

While beedi rolling takes a significant toll on health of the workers, the amount of money they earn through it is paltry — on an average Rs 24,787 per year. Women beedi rollers in Karnataka earn slightly better (Rs 26,266) than their counterparts in Tamil Nadu (Rs 23,307), the study found.

In comparison, the average annual income of women who shifted from beedi rolling to alternative occupations was significantly high at Rs 58,431.

In a previous study, AF Development Care had analysed data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) to show that in 2011-2012, as many as 96 percent of beedi workers were home-based, while only 4 percent worked in factories. Out of the workers who worked from home, 83.7 percent were women and 16.3 percent were men.

The study also found significant gender gap in terms of pay - women, on an average, earn Rs 126 per day while the men make Rs 266 per day. The average earning fir women is even lower than the national minimum wage which is set at Rs 178 by the Code on Wages, 2019.

Beedi industry is only one such in India where the workers get wages based on the number of units (in this case, number of beedis) they produce. As noted in an article in the Pulitzer Center, other industries take into account both - the time-rate (amount of time spent at the job) and the piece-rate (the number of units of the commodity that are produced), into account.

It is little surprising then that over half of the beedi rollers interviewed for the study (53.8 percent) said that they wanted to shift to alternate occupations.

Low pay, tough working conditions

R Amutha, 48 and  resident of Ukkirankottai village in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu is one of those who expressed the desire to leave the profession. She has been rolling beedis for thirty years now, and earns Rs 200 for every set of 1,000 hand-rolled cigarettes.

Speaking to Firstpost, Amutha said that she will be happy to take up an alternative job if she gets a better opportunity. Describing her ardous routine, she said, “I have to finish my chores early in the morning, after which I make beedis from 9 am to 4 pm. I take a break for a few hours, and then again do the same work for a few hours in the evening. I often suffer headaches, body ache, and pain in the hands and legs because of the work that I do.”

Another woman from her village, M Chithirai Kani, left beedi rolling a year ago, and although she is facing hard times on the economic front, she does not intend to go back to her old job. She said, “After I left beedi rolling, I took up a job as a helper at a hotel, for which I earned Rs 8,000 a month. However, the hotel was closed recently. Now, I am working on my farm, but the rains have been scarce this year. If my farm income is not enough, I will work as a labourer on other people’s farms, or take up work under the MGNREGS. But I will certainly not take up beedi-making again. I was paid only Rs 150-200 for every thousand beedis, and I often suffered from headaches and body aches due to the nature of the work.”

Serious health hazards force women beedi workers in Tamil Nadu Karnataka to quit profession amid COVID19

M Chithirai Kani, left beedi rolling a year ago, and although she is facing hard times on the economic front, she does not intend to go back to her old job. Neerad Pandharipande

Jamila Begum, a resident of the Channapatna town in Karnataka’s Ramanagara district, has also drastically cut down on beedi rolling on her doctor’s advice. She said, “I used to get only Rs 150 for every set of 1,000 beedis. However, I often used to suffer from breathing difficulties and body ache because of it. Of late, I have also been suffering from heart-related ailments. I have two sons and they have started working as labourers now. So, I have now more or less stopped beedi rolling in the past two years.”

Occupational health hazards such as the ones described above are only to be expected given the present nature of beedi-making further, says Sachi Satapathy, the principal investigator of the study conducted by AF Development Care. Speaking to Firstpost, he said, “Women who roll beedis have to inhale tobacco dust throughout the time that they are working. They also have to remain in a particular sitting position for several hours at a stretch, sometimes in houses without adequate ventilation. These women are grossly underpaid and exploited. What makes matters worse is that even though they are prone to many long-term ailments, healthcare facilities in rural areas are often inadequate. This can mean that their illnesses can remain undiagnosed.”

Satapathy further remarked, “At present, because a large proportion of beedi rollers are home-based, they do not get the benefit of labour laws. The government must urgently formulate a strong and effective policy that is aimed at regulating the working conditions of these workers.”

K Satish, a member of the data collection team for the study, said, “These women, especially the poorer ones, are often exploited by contractors who give them work. This exploitation happens by giving the women sub-standard raw material, and then ‘rejecting’ a certain percentage of beedis by saying that they are of inferior quality. The contractors keep even the ‘rejected’ beedis but do not pay the women for them.”

The study has emphasised that not only should beedi rollers be provided training for alternative occupations, but it should also be ensured that there is an economically viable market for the alternative skills.

Broadly, what becomes clear from the study is that improving the condition of beedi workers will require a combination of legal safeguards as well as alternative economic opportunities.

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