INDIA: Slave work conditions dire for girl-child beedi cigarette labourers

Davinder Kumar  – WNN Features

An Indian family in Andhra Pradesh rolls beedis together
Mahboobjaan and her daughters, living in the town of Kadiri in the Andhra Pradesh region of southern India, rely on beedi cigarette rolling to bring money for food and essentials to the family. But the procedure comes with a heavy price. Mahboobjaan’s hands are beginning to go numb. Many other young girls in Kadir, like Mahboobjaan daughters, are also pulled out of school at an early age so they can help support their family by rolling beedis. Home production of beedis is not controlled or regulated  under any safety regulations today by the government of India. Other loopholes in Indian law has caused many very young girl-labourers to ‘fall through the cracks.’ Image: Davindeer Kuma/Plan International India

(WNN) Kadiri, Andhra Pradesh, INDIA: Five-year-old Aliya thinks it is some kind of a game she must soon master to be a winner. From the time she wakes up till she goes to bed Aliya watches her mother and all the girls and women in her neighbourhood consumed in a frantic race. They all make beedis – the traditional hand-rolled Indian cigarettes.

For each beedi, the roller painstakingly places tobacco inside a dried tendu leaf, sourced from a local ebony tree. Then they tightly roll and secure it with a thread. Then they close the tips using a sharp knife. They work like this between 10 to 14 hours. Regardless of how long it takes, Aliya’s mother and others must all roll at least a 1,000 beedis to earn a ‘paltry sum’ of less than 2 dollars USD. The middlemen and beedi manufacturers, however, make billions of dollars.

After they are produced beedi cigarettes are taken to the warehouses of large manufacturers, packaged and then sold in the market for a much higher price. Beedis cigarettes are so popular on the global market today that they make up nearly half of India’s entire tobacco market. But behind the country’s unorganised domestic tobacco sector lies the ‘invisible’ millions who are trapped in modern-day economic slavery.

“Child labour in the bidi industry is common,” said the Journal of the Association of Physicians of India in a comprehensive report on the use and production of Indian tobacco in 2006.

India is a nation that has had pervasive child labour problems.

“There is no room for complacency when 215 million children are still labouring to survive and more than half of these are exposed to the worst forms of child labour, including slavery and involvement in armed conflict.” said ILO – International Labour Organization Director General Juan Somavia. “We cannot allow the eradication of child labour to slip down the development agenda – all countries should be striving to achieve this target, individually and collectively,” he added in a statement made for the World Day Against Child Labour.

According to 2008 estimates by the ILO there are 215 million child-labourers working worldwide. ILO figures in 2010 show that 153 million of these children are under the age of 15. Two thirds of these children also work under hazardous conditions.

In Aliya’s town of Kadiri in the Andhra Pradesh region of southern India, hundreds of families have for generations relied on beedi rolling as their only means of survival.

The labyrinthine congested lanes of Kadiri slums are home to an assembly line of humans functioning like robots. Young girls and women alike can be seen rolling cigarettes in groups out in the open. Some sway; some rock back and forth appearing entranced; while others have developed odd muscular motions as they push their work speed to the edge of human limits. For most, if they do not roll enough beedis every day, there simply will not be enough food on their plate.

“The pressure to keep up with the speed and meet the target [in beedi production] is so intense that many skip their meals and even avoid drinking water so they do not need to go to the toilet,” says Shanu, a community advocate and volunteer.

“Beedi making inherently poses tremendous health risks for the workers who are constantly exposed to tobacco dust and fumes,” outlines the India Centre for Women’s Development Studies of the ICSSR – Indian Council of Social Science Research. “The risk is even more in the case of children, both as workers and as household members, since the living and working places are the same for homebased workers,” continued the ICSSR.

Almost all beedi workers in the town of Kadiri, much like other beedi manufacturing pockets in India, are female. A large of number of them are young girls. Getting women and girl-children involved in the home-based process for beedi work is preferred by men, as the decision makers of their households, compared to sending women and girls ‘outside’ for work. Aliya has already started her lessons early and is practicing rolling beedis using cuttings of plain paper.

“I want to roll beedis and give money to my mother,” she explains.

But the generosity of children to work for their mothers can often place them in a direct line with dangerous health consequences inside the beedi tobacco industry. Girl-children and women workers can develop compromised respiratory health, as well as other negative reproductive impacts on their health later in life, due to their exposure to toxins in their work producing beedis. “Loss of [a] first child in a large number of cases and still births are also reported [by beedi workers],” continues the India Centre for Women’s Development Studies, a organization that has worked to chart labour practices with beedi production in India.

The ingredients inside beedis is not considered necessarily safe for contact, especially when smoked. Smoke from beedis can produce a mix of highly toxic chemicals including high levels of ammonia, phenols, hydrogen cyanide, cresols and benzopyrene, a polyaromatic hydrocarbon.

Dangers to smokers can also include dangers to anyone who handles the ingredients that make up a beedi, especially for beedi production workers. “Increased cancer rates and chromosomal aberrations are seen in bidi rollers, who are exposed to toxic tobacco dust through nasopharyngeal and cutaneous routes,” says an in-depth Oxford Journal report on toxicity and beedis coming from the United States based CDC – Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

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