Kolkata, August 10: Twenty-six-year-old Jarina bibi has nothing much left to lose. She had borrowed Rs 10,000 from a local money-lender in order to repair her house – the asbestos roof had given in the previous monsoon. She hails from Murshidabad district's Jangipur subdivision, where both Jarina and her husband, S.K. Imtiaz, were beedi workers. However, following the lockdown due to COVID-19 last year, her husband had to switch professions and moved to Chennai to work as a mason due to the falling wages in the beedi industry in the state .
The government had announced that the minimum wage in the beedi industry would be Rs 252 per day. However, the owner of the factory where the couple worked figured he could make a killing during the lockdown last year, dropping their wages from Rs 252 to between Rs 90 and Rs 110 per day. Imtiaz decided to head to another state for work while Jarina stayed behind and worked at the factory, rolling about 1,000 beedis a day.
Jyotirup Banerjee from the West Bengal Beedi Majdoor and Packers union alleged that owners of the beedi factories were all ministers in the Mamata Banerjee government or TMC MPs. When the state's labour minister Becharam Manna faced protests by workers, there were no takers. Interestingly an agreement had been reached seven months prior to the lockdown.
Thirty-eight-year-old Manjula bibi and her 18-year-old daughter Ria Khatoon live in an eight by ten feet room; both work from dawn to dusk, binding a thousand beedis. Speaking to Newsclick, she said that it weren't just beedi workers who were being "cheated". "Instead of 500 gms of tobacco needed to bind 1,000 beedis we are given between 450 and 470 gms of tobacco," she said, mentioning that there were not even provided with thread to tie the product up. Beedi workers work at home and supply the companies with packed beedis The deplorable working conditions and exploitation has led tothe majority of male beedi workers leaving the profession behind – about 96% of workers in the beedi trade are now women.
Industry estimates say that an a male worker can bind between 1,500 to 1,700 beedis in a day; the number is between 500 to 1,000 beedis per day for a woman. Manjula biwi now works with the Pataka Group and earns about Rs 152 per day after making a thousand beedis. Ria used to help her mother after finishing up her studies; during the lockdown, however, she was nearly a full-time worker at home. "Our exploitation is such that most beedi companies have built nursing homes or private education institutions with their profit," she said.
Formation of a Joint Action Committee
Unable to face the onslaught of the beedi unit owners, the trade unions working in the sector – except the TMC's – all came together to form a joint action committee. The committee took up their case with the labour minister, saying their stipulated minimum wage should be disbursed. They also organised deputations to BDOs and SDOs between August 4 and 11. Factory-gate meetings of workers will take place till August 16. There is a planned joint convention on August 18 and a road embargo programme in each district on August 28.
The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has led the programmes, said Jamir Mollah, CITU leader from Murshidabad district. He added that if the road-block programme does not create enough awareness, there could be a hartal in the district on August 31. Mollah told Newsclick that beedi workers were among the "most exploited in the district" and that the movement would help in making their life better.
The main demands include minimum wages, that every worker is brought within the ambit of the PF and that the owner should take onus. It said housing allowance should be provided and that each worker should have an ID card. It added that the government shoud also shut down all illegal factories operating in the state.