In the name of Beedi Workers: Welfare Schemes for whose Welfare?

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Nafisa (name changed) is 53 years old and lives in Charbag of Jabalpur district. She has been rolling beedis since she was a child. She has many health problems like pain in knees, joint pains, headache, backache, and poor eyesight. Since she has back pain, she is unable to sit for a long time and rolls beedi while standing up. Besides this her eyesight is also deteriorating, and as the evening approaches it becomes difficult for her to see anything. She went to the civil dispensary for Beedi workers nearly thrice but every time she was sent back without provision of nay treatment. She is now taking treatment from a private hospital. She is also facing difficulty in opening a bank account as her fingerprints are unreadable, due to rolling of Beedis.

Anjema (30 years) lives in Sonaripuri village of Murshidabad (West Bengal) a Beedi worker, with four children. She is married to a mason (40 years). She is not a BPL card holder neither a maternal health care card holder, despite her applying for the same in 2010. In 2010, she went to Nimtita Clinic for the process to get registered as a Card Holder and also got hold of the application form. However due to some mishap at the clinic, it was shut down by the authorities and she was unable to submit the form. Years went by, she is still working as a Beedi worker and unable to avail the benefits of being a Card Holder.

This story is not only of Nafisa or of Anjema but a majority of women Beedi rollers who we met in Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu- the three major Beedi producing states. These women continue with their struggle to claim their rights, in isolation.  On the occasion of the  International Workers’ Day’ referred also as to  ‘May Day’ observed on May 1, we share about the situation of Beedi workers (women) in India, especially about their health situation and their access to the welfare schemes and their entitlements as Beedi worker.

In India Beedi making is an age old industry and one of the largest job providers for women in the unorganized sector. Government estimates 4.4 million workers in the beedi rolling industry (1999-2000), majority of who are home based women workers. The trade unions claim that there are over 7 million Beedi workers (Best Practices Foundation (2011). It is one of the major informal sector activities in which a huge number of home based women workers are engaged. The women are largely involved in Beedi rolling activities and they largely are below the poverty line and are mostly from the marginalized communities.

POLICY FRAMEWORK FOR THE BEEDI WORKERS

The Central and State governments, have enacted legislations and policies aimed at monitoring working conditions and providing social security benefits for the welfare of Beedi workers. Besides the existing labour laws such as Minimum Wage Act and the Provident Fund Act, the Government of India has also enacted two important laws specifically for the beedi sector workers. The Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966 Act provides for the welfare of the workers in Beedi and Cigar establishments and to regulate the conditions of their work and for matters connected therewith. However, regulating this is a challenge as the workers are largely home-based. The Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1976 resulted in the creation of Beedi Workers Welfare Fund (BWWF) for the welfare of beedi workers. The BWWF is administered by the Labour Welfare Organisation (LWO) under the Ministry of Labour and Employment and is financed through a cess levied on manufactured beedis, which applies only to registered companies manufacturing more than 2 million Beedis per year. This exemption excludes the large number of workers who roll beedis for smaller unregulated companies, but are not eligible for benefits and entitlements.

WELFARE SCHEMES AND ENTITLEMENTS

There are a variety of schemes specifically for Beedi workers run by the Ministry of Labour, through the Beedi Workers Welfare Fund. These include schemes for educational scholarships, housing facilities, insurance for death and accident, funeral expenses, free treatment and medicines, spectacles, maternity benefits up to two live births, incentive of family planning operations, treatment for cardiac and renal problems, cancer, tuberculosis, leprosy, mental health, and other minor diseases such as ulcers, hernia, etc.

Schemes Available for Beedi Workers

  • Free of cost treatment at civil dispensaries and hospital for beedi workers
  • Free of cost treatment of TB and Cancer and monthly maintenance Allowance
  • Maternity Benefit Scheme for female beedi workers (up to 2 live births)
  • Financial Assistance for purchasing spectacles
  • Monetary compensation on undergoing sterilization operation
  • Grant for school admission of children of beedi workers.
  • Financial assistance/scholarship to school going children of Beedi Workers
  • Group Insurance Scheme
  • Financial assistance to beedi worker’s widow for her daughter’s marriage
  • Financial assistance for performing last rites of the beedi worker.
  • Housing scheme

It highlighted in a study on the Beedi workers across three states of India, that most Beedi workers are not aware of the existence of these schemes and the entitlements therein. It is not surprising thus that according to the data obtained from the Central Hospital in Sagar (Madhya Pradesh), between January 2011 and April 2016, only 2,658 applications were received for accessing 9 schemes and only the figures listed only 2145 beneficiaries. The housing scheme, though popular, had several barriers. Despite the fact that women constitute the  larger number of beedi rollers, in the mentioned period of five years applications received for maternity benefit scheme were  only 294 and out of that only 283 applicants got the benefit.   Similar stories were shared by the Medical Officers of the Central Hospitals of Mukkudal in Tamil Nadu and Tarapur in West Bengal.

CHALLENGES IN ACCESSING SCHEMES AND ENTITLEMENTS

Access to social security and welfare schemes requires two types of documentation – a registration/ID card (which links a worker to a company), and a card to access schemes of the Beedi Worker Welfare Fund which is issued by the Dispensary/ Hospital run by the Beedi Workers’ Welfare Fund. Many of the Beedi workers who participated in the discussion had a card to access welfare schemes. However they did not have a registration ID which would link them to a company, thereby depriving them of social security benefits like Provident Fund (PF) and Pension. In order to get a registration ID card, a worker has to be certified by the factory certifying that s/he has rolled 5,600 beedis per month for 2 months. The Contractor is responsible for ensuring that a worker gets registered however in practice most of the workers do not have such registration. Further, workers who do not work for the registered companies (i.e. those manufacturing more than 2 million beedis annually) do not get a registration card at all. Many women Beedi rollers had shown the card which was in name of their husband or son. So in lack of any authenticated card/ ID proof majority workers get deprived of availing the benefits and then who have cards either are not aware of the schemes or gets discouraged as it being a time consuming process.

There are no efforts geared by the state or centre or even by the trade unions to popularize these schemes and generate awareness about the schemes among beedi workers. Except in the dispensary/hospital for Beedi workers nowhere else were these schemes displayed. Contrary to earlier arrangement of Beedi rolling work in factory settings, now the workplace has shifted to houses, which has further isolates the women and reducesthe chances of their getting any information and of getting organized or unionized. Now instead of work hours based wages, they work on piece rate (per 1000 Beedis) and they have to sit for longer hours to complete the target of Beedi rolling in order to earn a decent wage  and  make both ends meet.

IMPACT ON HEALTH AND ACCESS TO HEALTH CARE FACILITIES

The nature of work of Beedi rollers involves prolonged sitting with the trunk bent forward and the constant use of fingers. Different studies with Beedi workers in India including a National Commission for Women (NCW) report on women beedi workers have discussed several health problems of Beedi workers like calluses in hands, fatigue in the arms and numbness in fingers. Throat ache, respiratory disorder, piles and pain in urinary tract are some of the common problems faced by large number of beedi workers. Constant exposure to tobacco dust results in respiratory irritation. Tuberculosis and Asthma are also common. Sitting for long hours causes back and neck aches, joint pain, as well as arthritis and gynecological problems. Headaches, nausea, giddiness and burning of the eyes from long hours of work and exposure to tobacco are almost a way of life for many beedi workers.

There are dispensaries, mobile vans and central hospital run by Beedi Workers’ Welfare Fund, exclusively for Beedi workers. However, workers complain of poor services at these facilities. There are no adequate medicines and diagnostics available. Therefore even if the workers go to the facilities they are sent to other government health facilities which are crowded and a lot of time is spent in seeking treatment there. Therefore people prefer to go to private practitioners or to informal practitioners closer to their dwellings and villages.  As one worker remarked “We don’t go to the Beedi hospital (dispensary). It is in Jabalpur and far from our village. Once or twice I had gone there but I spent my whole day which is a big loss of money. Despite that I didn’t get proper medicine and treatment there”.

Ironically, it is a vicious circle for the Beedi workers.  To earn sufficiently, they have to sit continuously for long hours which takes a toll on their health, and poor health results in decreasing their rolling capacity of the Beedis. This resultantly leads to poor earnings; as a result they compromise with their healthcare needs. When survival is the prime concern then who has time to get information about schemes and entitlements meant for them and then the state also does not try to reach out to these Beedi workers. Hence, despite the well intentioned schemes, in lack of proper and adequate operational mechanism these schemes failed to reach to the beedi workers.

SUGGESTIONS

To uphold the rights of the Beedi workers, the state should make Beedi companies accountable to issue passbooks and ID Cards to the workers enrolled with them or with their contractors so that workers can get their rights under different social security schemes. There is a need of uniform and transparent registration process. For improvement in usage of welfare schemes, the respective departments should establish mechanisms to make Beedi workers aware of the schemes and of the procedure to be followed. Periodic Awareness camps should be organized in areas populated with Beedi workers. Since workers are largely home-based, a different mechanism for this is required. There needs to be a system for grievance redressal where workers can approach in case of violation of their rights and entitlements. Trade unions also need to rework their strategy to reach to these home based workers who are mainly women and voice their concerns.

*This article draws largely from the study conducted by the Centre for Health and Social Justice (2016) on the ‘Situation of Beedi workers in three states of India’.