Women and sometimes children sit on the floor for several hours every day and roll these sticks using charcoal paste, sawdust and bamboo sticks.

Toiling day and night I make Rs 1000 per week Plight of Bengalurus agarbatti makers
Delve Labour & Employment Wednesday, September 25, 2019 - 19:18

Agarbatti, Oodhinkaddi, Oodhubatthi - incense stick is known by various names, yet they all smell great. But ever wondered how these aromatic sticks are made? And who makes them?

In most cases, the agarbattis are made at home, by women – and sometimes children. They sit on the floor for several hours every day and roll these sticks using charcoal paste, sawdust and bamboo sticks. The material for making these incense sticks is provided by middlemen, who then collect the finished sticks and pay the women every week.

A box of 100 agarbattis from a regular provisions store costs Rs 65. So the market price of 1,000 of these agarbattis is Rs 650. That’s what, we, as customers, pay. However, ever wondered what the women who make these sticks earn? 

“I make three to four bundles of agarbattis a day, which will be 3,000 or 4,000 sticks. For a bundle, I get paid Rs 30. So, in a week, I would get close to Rs 700 or Rs 800. The maximum I can make is Rs 1,000, that is, if I toil every single day - day and night,” an agarbatti roller, who did not want to be identified, told TNM.

Many have been making agarbattis for more than 10 years. Since they are not employed in a factory or do not have a well-facilitated workplace, they work from their homes located in the slums of Bengaluru, or from sheds or rooms provided to them by the agarbatti manufacturers - most of which are barely ventilated room, in addition to the constant power cuts.

And today, because of the machine, they don't get work. The salary, too, has reduced, too. “We're only adjusting to all this because we do not have any other skills,” says another woman.

As a result of long hours of sitting and exposure to sawdust, many get tuberculosis, piles, lung issues and other health-related problems.

Based on the minimum wages set by the government for 2019-20, these workers are to be paid between Rs 43 and Rs 49 for every 1000 battis they roll, depending on the size. In the case of these workers, however, they are paid below the minimum wage.

Watch:

Here’s the full transcript:

Agarbatti... Oodhinkaddi... Oodhubatthi... An incense stick by any name still smells great.

But ever wondered how they’re made?

In most cases, the Agarbatti is made at home by women – and sometimes children – who roll these sticks as they sit on the floor for several hours every day... using charcoal paste, sawdust, and bamboo sticks.

Rachael, TNM: “For how long have you been doing this?”

A woman: “Our entire childhood has been spent rolling away agarbattis…”

Rachael, TNM: “I bought this box of 100 agarbattis from a regular provisions store, for 65 rupees. So the market price of a 1000 of these agarbattis is 650 rupees – That’s what you pay. However, the women who make them get just about 30 rupees for 1000 sticks.”

A woman who rolls agarbattis: “Roll every stick, one by one, count one thousand pieces, and then count the pieces one more time; and then again once a week.”

27-year-old Saba (name changed) has been rolling Agarbattis for 20 years now. The money that she makes is half the income for her household. And therefore, no matter how little the money is for the work she does, she has no option, but to keep doing it.

Saba: “It doesn't matter if the weather is bad, or if there's no electricity, we have to keep making them. We face a lot of problems.”   

Now, till Deepavali, there is a season (for making agarbattis). After that, for three months, there is no work. Sometimes, there are no sticks, sometimes, there is no atta. After December, there won't be any work for three months. As in, there will be work, but not regular. Like two or three days in a week... Three days of work and three days of no work.

Another agarbatti roller: "I make three to four bundles of agarbattis a day, which will be 3,000 or 4,000 sticks."

Rachael: In a week?

Woman: "No, in a day! In a week, I would make anywhere between 20 to 25 bunches. For a bundle, I get paid Rs 30. So, in a week, I would get close to Rs 700 or Rs 800. The maximum I can make is Rs 1,000, that is, if I toil every single day - day and night.

The material for making these incense sticks is provided by middlemen, who then collect the finished sticks and pay the women every week.

Another agarbatti roller: “Now, because of the machine, we don't get work... sometimes, no sticks, sometimes, no atta. The salary has reduced, too. The salary goes off to the machines... So many people have lost their livelihood because of the machines. The payment has become so much less now (because of mechanisation). Earlier, we used to get Rs 50 for 1,000 sticks. Now, we get Rs 30. We're only adjusting to all this because we do not have any other skills."

Rachael: "None of you wear gloves because (the material) sticks to your hands..."

Most of the workers who make agarbattis have been doing this work for more than 10 years. They are not employed in a factory nor do they have a well-facilitated workplace. They either work from their homes located in the slums of Bengaluru, or from sheds or rooms provided to them by the agarbatti manufacturers.

The space allocated for work generally includes a barely ventilated room, for no other facilities for workers.

This room with just a door at the entrance has no windows or other doors for cross ventilation. Constant power cuts make it even more difficult for them to work.

However, most of the women who are engaged in this work have no other means of livelihood.

Isaac Arun Selvam, Editor, Slumjagatthu Monthly: “Speaking about Bengaluru, expense wise, for rent and food it becomes difficult for them to sustain. There are several health hazards, too. Many people get tuberculosis and other lung issues from sitting for a long time, many are getting piles and other health-related problems. There is no labour standard as far as health or salary is concerned. The owner tells them that this is what he makes and that he can’t give more than that, and to either work or just leave the job and go. The owner can easily replace this many workers with a single machine.

Rachael: Based on the minimum wages set by the government for 2019-20, these workers are to be paid between Rs 43 and Rs 49 for every 1000 battis they roll, depending on the size. They are also entitled to a Variable Dearness Allowance of Rs 68.68 every day, which is a sum calculated by the government, based on inflation. In the case of these workers, they are paid below the minimum wage.

Dr Balachandra CH, Deputy Commissioner of Labour: “If we compare the number of people and the number of inspectors, there is a huge difference. We work on the complaints that we receive here. It is difficult for us to check the conditions in every establishment. When we get to know about such instances, we conduct inspections.”

Isaac: “In our country, there are no examples of labourers getting the right payment for their work. What we call fourth-grade employment - whether it is pourakarmikas or manual scavenging workers... No one gets a life of dignity. There is no dignified life."

Rachael: Despite Karnataka being the largest agarbatti producing state in India, it is truly alarming that the agarbatti makers in Bengaluru do not even receive the minimum wages fixed by the government. While the officials need to do their job, it’s also important that consumers – you and I – know where these incense sticks are coming from, and demand that these companies provide better wages and working conditions to these women. 

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.