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 a recent 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 analyzing 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 constitute 29.2% of their annual beedi-rolling income.
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.
Every single finding of this research work suggest that government must examine the issue of declaring home-based beedi rolling as hazardous seriously. Looking at this issue, 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 middle men. 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 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 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.
It is proved in this scientific study that home-based women beedi rollers are exposed to various occupational health problems such as neck and lower back pain, abdominal pain, eye problems, burning in the throat, cough, asthma, tuberculosis, osteological problems and