Despite paltry wages, women beedi rollers have few other job prospects, shows research; gender gap exacerbates matters

·7-min read

Women beedi workers across the country face grave problems in the form of extremely low wages, abysmal social security and a lack of alternative work options, a recent study by a group of researchers has found.

The study, while noting that most beedi workers want to leave the occupation, recommends roping in NGOs and private institutions to train them on alternative livelihoods.

The study, titled Knowledge gap in existing research on India's women beedi rollers and alternative livelihood options was authored by Sachi Satapathy, Gagan Bihari Sahu, Jaganath Mallick, Nilachala Acharya and Bhaskar C Sahoo. It was published by Delhi-based researchers' consortium, AF Development Care.

Speaking to Firstpost, Sachi Satapathy, the principal investigator of the study, said, "At present, there are some inconsistencies in official data on this sector. For example, according to the government's replies to Rajya Sabha questions, there were 5.59 million beedi workers in July 2019, but this number actually reduced to 4.98 million just a few months later in December 2019. The government must come out with clean data on people working in this sector in order to devise appropriate social welfare schemes and social protection mechanisms for them."

Official figures

As per figures mentioned by the Union government to the Rajya Sabha from time to time, the total number of beedi workers in the country had decreased from 4.47 million in 1993-94 to 4.27 million in February 1997. However, more recently, the number has again shown a rising trend of late, increasing from 4.81 million in December 2018 to 4.98 million in December 2019.

The AF Development Care's study has analysed the Union labour ministry's data to show that this rise has been mostly driven by eastern and central India. The highest rise between 1997 and 2018 was seen in the region covered by the Kolkata Labour Welfare Organisation (1183.4 thousand), followed by Jabalpur (394.7 thousand) and Ranchi (113.4 thousand). On the other hand, the number of beedi workers has declined in southern India. The biggest decline was seen in the region covered by the Tirunelveli Labour Welfare Organisation (541.1 thousand), followed by Hyderabad (187.0 thousand) and Kannur (104.4 thousand).

Under the Union government's Directorate General of Labour Welfare, there are 17 such regions in the country, each headed by a welfare commissioner. These labour welfare organisations are tasked with administering funds for the benefit of workers in some occupations (including beedi-making) included in the unorganised sector.

Changing nature of beedi industry

At present, the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966 and Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1976 regulate the working conditions and social security benefits for this section of the population. However, these laws were formulated at a time when beedi rolling was primarily carried out in factories, as has been noted by the Union government itself.

However, the AF Development Care study analyses data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) to show that more recently, 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.

"This shift from a factory-based to a home-based system may be largely attributed to the avoidance of financial compliance by factory owners in accordance with labour legislations and various welfare schemes meant for beedi workers," the study notes.

The increasingly informal nature of beedi-making seems to have had an extremely adverse impact on incomes for the people (mostly women) who carry out the work of filling tobacco in rolled-up >tendu leaves. According to the study, there is a significant gender gap in terms of pay, and women on an average earn Rs 126 per day, as compared to men, who earn Rs 266 per day on an average.

To give some perspective, in January 2019, an expert committee appointed by the Union labour ministry had recommended that the government should set the national minimum wage at Rs 375. However, under the Code of Wages, 2019, the national minimum wage has been set at Rs 178 as of now.

Bibek Debroy, the chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, took note of this point in a foreword that he wrote for the study. Debroy remarked, "Even when legislation exists, in an informal economy, it cannot be enforced. For instance, rights cannot be enforced (irrespective of whether the sector is technically defined as organised or unorganised) in the absence of contracts. One of the findings in this report reinforces the impression that often, workers don't have enforceable contracts."

Indeed, the study shows that in the unorganised sector, 95.7 percent of women beedi workers do not have a written job contract, and 93.5 percent are not eligible for any social security benefits, such as pension or gratuity. The situation is only slightly better in the organised sector, where 79.8 percent women do not have a written job contract, and 47.0 percent are not eligible for any social security benefits.

Further, an article in the Pulitzer Center quotes Dithhi Bhattacharya, director of non-profit Centre for Workers' Management (CWM) as saying that the beedi industry is the only one in the country which pays wages only on a piece-rate basis (based on the number of units of an item that have been produced). Other industries have both a time-rate and a piece-rate.

Post-GST worries

While most beedi workers have been pushed out of the formal economy, the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax also appears to have had a negative effect on them. Prior to GST, the Beedi Workers Welfare Cess Act, 1976 was in force, and the cess under this law was meant to finance welfare measures for the workers in this sector. However, in 2017, with the rollout of GST, the cess was abolished.

An analysis of the utilisation of the welfare cess showed that in 2014-15, 2015-2016, 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, the total revenue expenditure for welfare measures was Rs 1,866.6 million, Rs 1,757.9 million, Rs 2,060.7 million and Rs 1,740.9 million respectively. This included expenditure on scholarships, health, housing, administration and recreation. Similarly, in 2014-15, 2015-2016, 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, the total capital expenditure for this purpose was Rs 30.5 million, Rs 14.1 million, Rs 5.6 million and Rs 5.2 million respectively. This included capital expenditure on health and administration.

Lack of government intervention

In 2010, a survey by NGO Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI) had shown that in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, 93 percent of the beedi workers interviewed expressed a desire to shift to alternative professions. However, data analysed by AF Development Care showed that out of a total of an estimated 5 million beedi workers, only 2,223 women beedi workers have received skill development training as part of a government programme. Out of these, only 1,025 could shift to alternative jobs after the training.

Speaking about this finding, Satapathy said, "The government must devise skill development opportunities that are in keeping with the capabilities of the people involved. For example, merely handing out tailoring machines to everyone is not the solution. Further, there needs to be a market survey to determine the kinds of jobs that are in demand, whether in the agricultural supply chain, industrial sector or service sector."

While improving the condition of beedi workers will require many more years of effort, assessing what they need in order to break the vicious cycle of poverty would be an important first step.

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