Exploring the various intersections to one’s identity and the barriers experienced by women in the specialised Beedi manufacturing industry
5 minutes read
When we think about the well-fed narrative of women standing shoulder-to-shoulder with men in this “day and age”, we need to think about the image of the woman that comes into our mind. Most likely she would be someone with perfectly set, wearing ‘formal’ clothes, having a bag full of stuff that she needs to keep up with her job, most likely in the way she would prefer it. What I’m getting at, is that most of her primary needs may have been taken care of. By whom? By other men and women who aid her in that job. However, when we think about this “shoulder to shoulder” idea of equality, do we consider the differences that come with a marginalized or sidelined identity? This marginalization could be because one belongs to a sex, gender, religion, caste or occupations that are considered among minorities. Some such occupations fall under the domain of the informal sector of the economy. These are our sanitation workers, construction workers, domestic workers and several others. This article, while specifically dealing with the Paan and Beedi industry women workers, attempts to call for a rethinking. A rethinking of what kind of equality we proudly think we have achieved? And if such equality was in fact there, then this article unfortunately aids in debunking this extremely sad myth.
Women in the specialised industries of Paan and Beedi constitute about 80% of the total number of people employed. Despite this majority, the industry remains largely male-dominated because of their influence and control over the production process of beedis. A large number of women are mainly involved in the process of rolling beedis, i.e. by spreading tobacco on a tendu leaf and rolling it to be tied with a cotton thread. While the beedi industry has been facing a rapid decline since 2005-06 by 13.7 billion rupees, however, it was quick to rise about two-fold by 2010-11. the opportunities to upskill for these women remain few. Some women have participated in the Garment and Textile industry while others take up similar home-based jobs.
The primary reason why a majority of women take up this job is due to certain restrictions that they face as a result of several social institutions that they happen to be a part of. Each of these institutions and their intersections with other similar barriers shape the choices that these women workers are “allowed” to make.
Most of the beedi-rolling work takes place in non-urban spaces and is dominated by women. Most of the women engaged with beedi-rolling do it so as to lend a hand in the family’s finances while also being able to be responsible for household chores. Non-urban spaces are not necessarily outside of the city, they also include the slums built into the city and on its outskirts. Since this is a largely home-based work process, there is not a huge amount of investment that it takes for contractors and middlemen. This essentially means that they can take away this job from workers any time that labour cost increases or workers demand fair and just working conditions. Further in case the cultivation of tendu leaves (which are used to roll beedis) comes under threat, contractors of labour do not have much to lose and can easily take away work and migrate elsewhere, a place where this business thrives (in the illegal or black market).
Religious and caste-based confinement
Majority of the women working in this industry belong to the Scheduled Castes (SCs) or are Muslim OBC workers. This stems from their weaker socio-economic status, which in turn has happened due to their marginalization from other “respectable” jobs. Community-based occupation like pottery or weaving, in the case of Muslim OBC families, has undergone a change owing to changes in what consumers prefer and increasing globalization. Such reasons act as adverse conditions if not contributors to the women of the house stepping into work roles for supporting finance. Due to certain religious obligations, Muslim women are not allowed to step out of the household and hence come about to undertake this job as it is possible within the confines of the home. Such restraints have further reduced opportunities to upskill for women workers. The occupations where upskilling has happened, to some extent, is also something that restricts the woman to her house (like small scale tailoring). However, this observation does not have evidence of targeting any religion or caste, especially because emphasis on women’s roles within the house is a largely observed trend.
Gender disparity and economic exploitation
Women’s labour contributions have been undervalued since time immemorial. This is due to the secondary position that women were ‘granted’ when it came to allotting gender roles, thanks to patriarchal mindsets working actively to create such conditions. Like many other industries, more so in the informal sector, this industry is also fraught with economic exploitation of women. One mainstream problem is when contractors reject a significant amount of beedis rolled on the basis of unmet quality standards. The catch here, after citing such reasons they go on to accept the beedis but pay a lesser rate for those “damaged” beedis. According to the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act of 1966, employers can reject 2.5% of produce however owing to certain loopholes in the Act itself and the low bargaining power of women, this provision does not have a strong foothold. We also need to understand that a lot of the time, women workers are not aware of such provisions, or the access to pull up such matters and further their demands for justice.
Gender disparity and educational opportunities
Child labour is inadvertently encouraged in this industry and it has dire consequences. When a child is asked to assist his/her/their parent in this labour-intensive activity, neither the parent nor the child look at this assistance as ‘employment’. It is simply some additional hands and their own children’s in this regard. Hence, although parents may not encourage this labour practice, they do end up asking for help which does constitute as child labour. Why child labour? Because this ‘help’ is often extended at the cost of school hours, life skills education and most importantly by being exposed to acute health hazards.
10% of the total number of women workers in the beedi-rolling process are girls below the age of 14, which further lays bare the fact that girls, right from a young age are “allowed” to help only within the very restricted boundary of the home. Several methods and uncertainties in the fixed wages for this occupation is known to encourage child labour. Even within this case, the number of boys involved is exactly half as compared to the number of girls. This often stems from how the hopes and aspirations of the family are vested in the male child whereas girls unfortunately come with an unsaid stipulated time period for which their families need to care for them. This results in restricted opportunities for the girls of the family and contributes to the continuation of the vicious cycle of poverty.
A study of women workers in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh found that 93.8% of women agreed that this was a relatively easy way to earn a livelihood. The conditions of work are marketed in a way that makes it seem easier, especially because of its “work-from-home” (WFH) nature; which calls for a separate discussion on the understanding of WFH altogether. Moving on, such numbers bring us to consider the extreme occupational hazards that women and other workers (children included) are exposed to, in the process of the activity of beedi-rolling. Several respiratory diseases may grow to increase the mortality rate for workers in this occupation.
Having compiled this data and information, we need to understand that there is an interplay of various forces that acutely put women at a disadvantage. This disadvantage is seen in various ways, but most importantly in the restricted growth of these women workers. We need to advocate for their growth and mobility with lesser threats to their health along with fair and just working conditions and ethical employers.
- Tobacco Free Kids: Workers and Livelihoods: Women and Children, 2008
- Tobacco Induced Diseases: Economic contributions of the bidi manufacturing industry in India, 2018
- UTMS Journal of Economics: Socioeconomic status of women beedi workers in Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh: An Empirical Analysis, 2015
- Pulitzer Center: Fading Fingerprints of Beedi workers in India, 2020.