In Kerala, beedi workers face a dilemma: Daily wages or their health

Pension and the ability to work from home draw women to the work — but it comes with a price to their health.
Padmavathi, a beedi worker
Padmavathi, a beedi worker
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Holding a palm leaf basket in her lap, Usha swiftly picks up one of the tendu leaves inside it and fills it with tobacco flakes. She quickly rolls and wraps it with a pointed pin, then ties it together using a thread, without ever glancing up. The whole process takes her only a few seconds, and she continues to roll bidis one after the other without wasting another minute. 43-year-old Usha from Cherkala of Kasaragod district is one among the thousands of beedi rollers in northern Kerala. For the last 25 years, she has been rolling beedis for the Mangaluru-based Bharath Beedi. Raw materials are provided by the company and labourers are allowed to roll bidis in their own homes.

But rolling 3000 beedis a week, for which she earns Rs 2500 to Rs 3000 a month, has taken its toll on Usha. Body pain and respiratory problems have become common for women beedi workers like Usha, and the money they make is nowhere near enough to compensate for these health hazards.

Usha, who lost her husband 10 years ago, has been suffering from severe asthma for many years and had surgery five years ago due to intestinal issues. Usha’s mother-in-law, sister-in-law and other women in the neighborhood are also beedi rollers. “Most women who work in our neighborhood have respiratory issues. Many of them also have stomach pain, tiredness and back pain,” she said. Usha says that if she finishes rolling 1000 beedis a day, she gets Rs 220 per day, but she is unable to reach that number.

Usha’s mother-in-law Santha, who sat next to her rolling beedis, said, “I have a severe allergy and also have breathing issues. Due to ill health, I just roll a very small number a week. I cannot go out for work as I am sick, so this is the only way to earn something sitting at home,” she said.

Since they can work at home and earn some money, many of the beedi workers in Kasaragod district work for the private companies from Dakshina Kannada district in Karnataka. The famous Kerala Dinesh Beedi, a cooperative firm from Kannur, has manufacturing units in many parts of Kasaragod, Kannur and Kozhikode districts. At a Dinesh Beedi unit, the labourers work a hall provided to them from 9 am to 5 pm, six days a week.

“We get around Rs 370 for rolling 1000 beedis a day. Most of us cannot reach upto that number, but still we can earn around Rs 270 to Rs 300 a day,” Padma, a beedi roller who works at a Dinesh beedi unit in Kasaragod, said.

“We had around 55 workers in our unit. Now we have just 23 of us working here. Most of them left because of health issues. We also suffer severe allergies, and issues with our throats, eyes and stomachs. We don’t know how to do any other work as we have been doing this for the last three decades. We continue to do this,” she added.

Narayani, 60, lives in Payyannur of Kannur district and was a beedi roller for 30 years. “I stopped working a few years ago, as I am suffering from asthma and severe stomach pain. Doctors asked me to stop doing beedi work. I did not know any other work and now I have no income,” she said.

A widespread issue 

A study from AF Development Care published in August 2020 surveyed 496 women beedi rollers from two districts each of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and had found that beedi rolling a hazardous activity. The main issues were found to be weakness, breathing difficulties, lower back pain, cough, bronchitis, body ache, body ache, and abdominal pain.

“Many have left this job due to severe health issues in our Dinesh beedi unit. They now work as domestic workers for daily wages,” Kunjikannan, a retired beedi worker from Kasaragod, said.

A study from Dakshina Kannada district published in the European Respiratory Journal in 2014 on 200 beedi-rolling women has revealed that 80% of them had respiratory symptoms. 70% had knee and joint problems while 40% had skin problems.

A government doctor from Kannur district says, “Almost all of them have respiratory issues. I myself have directed some of them to specialised doctors with problems relating to the uterus and gastrointestinal. I have recommended women not to continue with the occupation, but they find it easy to earn some money being at home, so that they can take care of children too. But they are not convinced that it will badly affect the children too,” he said.

Cotinine, which is an alkaline found in tobacco, can be detected in the urine and saliva of these beedi rollers when tested, he said.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information published a study in 2012 stating that the inhalation of tobacco dust can have genotoxic hazards. “Beedi rollers handle tobacco flakes and inhale tobacco dust and volatile components of tobacco in their work environment (often their homes) and are at risk for genotoxic hazards. None of them were aware that low birth weight could be due to tobacco,” the study says. The study also found more than 20 health issues, including fatigue, blurring of vision, palpitations, menstrual irregularity and breathlessness among beedi rollers in Mumbai.

Rehabilitation not on the horizon

For many years, the government has been announcing rehabilitation plans for the beedi workers. In 2018, then Labour Minister TP Ramakrishnan had announced Rs 20 crore to the beedi workers to start their own ventures in poultry farming, stitching centres, mobile recharge centres, shops and other such ventures. But the schemes just remained on papers and benefits were not received by the labourers.

Additionally, no proper studies in Kerala for the health of these workers have been conducted.

“We haven’t done major studies yet in the state on health issues, because this occupation is closely associated with trade unions in the state, which are attached to major political parties,” the doctor said. He strongly advocated for the rehabilitation of beedi rollers in the state. “They should be trained in some other occupation or they need to be supported to get into some other field,” he added.

But KM Sreedharan, a member of The Kerala Beedi & Cigar Workers Welfare Fund Board in Kasaragod district, said that rehabilitation is not easy in this sector. “Most of the workers are from extremely poor backgrounds. They don’t have skills in other jobs. They have been doing this job for many decades. So one fine day, they cannot switch jobs. Otherwise the government will have to support them financially for a long term,” he said.

Hesitant to shift the job

The AF Development Care study from 2020 had found that poverty or lack of funds or financial support were the major obstacle for a majority (51%) of women in this field to shift to another occupation. “This is followed by lack of training (18.6%), need to work at home (7.9%), lack of market linkage (5.6%) and lack of family support (5.1%) were the primary factors behind their failure in shifting to alternative occupation,” the study said.

Several of the Kerala workers who TNM spoke to raised these same reasons as well.

Pushpa, a beedi roller from Nileswar says, “I was abandoned by my husband when my children were 2.5 and one years old. With them, I wouldn’t have survived if I wasn’t into beedi rolling.”

Along with the ability to work from home, another major attraction of the beedi rollers is the pension offered. “They get a Provident Fund pension. The pension amount depends on the money they earned in the last five years before retiring. A person who rolled 1000 beedis per day for five years will get upto Rs 3500 per month as pension. Apart from that, the Kerala Beedi & Cigar Workers Welfare Fund Board will provide Rs 1700 as pension for workers who worked till 58 years and also the members of the board,” Kunjikannan said.

The welfare fund board pensions are primarily received by rollers who work for Dinesh, Kajah and Sadhoo beedi in Kerala. However, many labourers in Kerala also work for private beedi firms in Dakshina Kannada, which are unwilling to join Kerala’s provident fund scheme. “So pensions for those workers are at stake,” said Sreedharan.

But the promise of a pension one day forces some workers to stay in the field. “In fact, very few among us receive pension. But we know no other work and this seems convenient,” Pushpa, a roller who works for Bharath beedi, said.

As per the unofficial data, there are about 80,000 beedi workers in Kerala, concentrated mainly in Kannur, Kasaragod and Kozhikode districts. As per the 2017 labor statistics, only 6,450 beedi workers are registered with the welfare board under the Labour Department. The data says only 3,065 workers are receiving a pension.

“Last year, we gave data of beedi rollers in Kasaragod district alone which was 17,000. They were ready to take membership in the board. But the number is much larger in the district, as private companies from Karnataka are not ready to cooperate and many of the workers did not join us,” Sreedharan said, adding that a majority of labourers in the sector are unorganised.

It’s a long road toward better conditions for beedi workers, one that can begin with rehabilitation as well as Karnataka films joining the welfare program to offer pension to retired workers, Sreedharan said. “Earlier, we had a hospital in Kannur for the welfare of the beedi rollers, but now it is not functioning. Doctors from primary health centers used to visit Dinesh beedi centers, but again, the women who work from home should also be aware. Awareness on necessary precautions to be taken while rolling beedis can also benefit the workers,” he said.

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