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WB: Woes of Beedi Workers Continue in Murshidabad District

The convention of the beedi workers' unions demanded a tripartite meeting between the joint action committee, Beedi Merchants' Association of Dhulian and the government of West Bengal.
WB: Woes of Beedi Workers Continue in Murshidabad District

Representational image. | image courtesy: Flickr

On November 8, 2023, the joint action committee of Beedi Workers' Union organised an open convention in the Dhulian region of the Murshidabad district. 

The convention demanded a tripartite meeting between the joint action committee, Beedi Merchants' Association of Dhulian and the government of West Bengal. 

The joint action committee has been raising the demand of minimum wages for beedi workers, as per government schedule. It includes representatives from the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), United Trade Union Congress (UTUC), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Federation of Indian Trade Unions (FITU), All India United Trade Union Centre (AIUTUC) and All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU).  

The labour unions of Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have not joined the movement. 

Debasish Roy, the general secretary of the All India Beedi Workers' Federation of India, informed NewsClick that in West Bengal, 22 lakh people are engaged in the profession of beedi rolling. 

"In the Murshidabad district, the number of beedi workers is about 17 lakh. The wages of around two-third of the beedi workers of West Bengal are fixed through the settlement between the workers' union and Beedi Merchants' Association of Dhulian." 

The beedi industry of West Bengal is being run from the Jangipur subdivision of Murshidabad. 

According to the CITU leadership, about nine lakh beedi workers are from Jangipur subdivision. About two lakh beedi workers from Jharkhand also work under the companies that operate from Jangipur .

A beedi packet consisting of 20 beedis is sold for Rs 12 in the market, pegging the price of 1000 bidis at Rs 600 even by the lowest estimates. The practice of 'Patti' is not standardised in Murshidabad. 

Interestingly, according to the 2011 Census, the total number of inhabitants of the district is 71.04 lakhs, of which 17 lakh adults are related to the beedi trade. Most of the owners of the beedi companies are millionaires and directly related to the ruling party as MPs and MLAs. The local MP is also a Beedi company owner, as is the MLA. Even the Zilla chairperson of the Murshidabad district is the owner of a beedi-manufacturing unit. 

Amongst the beedi manufacturers, Pataka Beedi is the largest one, with a huge mansion as its head office in Kolkata; its products are even exported to the Gulf countries.

Khatun, who works as a beedi worker, does not have a PF account. Of the 17 lakh bidi workers in Murshidabad, only three lakh have PF registrations in their names. 

"Even if I have a high fever or am extremely unwell, I still have to carry on with the work of beedi binding seven days a week with whatever leaves we can manage from the company," she said. 

Khatun binds beedi for a contractor of Noor company, whose owner Khalilur Rahman is the local MP from the Jangipur Lok Sabha constituency.

MD Azad, a beedi worker who is also the president of the All India Bidi Workers' Federation (AIBWF) - Murshidabad unit, said that the exploitation of workers by the bidi manufacturers is coupled with the apathetic attitude of the Central and the state governments, which adds to the problems of the beedi workers in the state. As most beedi company owners are leaders of the locally ruling TMC, the state government, where the same party is in power, always sides with the owners, he said. 

The government also has a long history of dilly-dallying when it comes to signing the wage agreements in the sector as by government rules, the minimum wage should be Rs 276, Azad added.

In the Murshidabad district, the minimum wage has been fixed at Rs 178. However, the bribes such as patti and the practice of giving less leaves to the beedi workers for binding bring the actual wage down to the Rs 130-140 level. 

"We are fighting against these, but the state government is maintaining a stoic silence over this issue," Azad said.

"In the last few years, the Central government has collected Rs 1,164 crore as cess from the beedi manufacturing companies, but the privileges that we were supposed to get from the cess amount are slowly being withdrawn," the AIBWF president said. 

As per the social security network of the beedi workers, they are supposed to get an allowance for entertainment like going to sea sides, house building, scholarships, and medical treatment. 

"Except for the scholarship, and to some extent, the medical allowances, all the other schemes have been withdrawn by the Central government even though it gets crores of rupees as cess every year from the sector," he said in disdain. 

There are ten big hospitals in the country for treating beedi workers, of which the biggest is located at Tarapur of Murshidabad district. However, the hospital does not have adequate facilities for treatment and even ECG and USG machines are not active for want of technicians. 

There is also not a sufficient number of doctors and nurses in the hospital, which is located on 70 bighas of land at Tarapur in the Dhulian block of Murshidabad. Many of the 292 welfare dispensaries the country has are situated in Murshidabad but lack medicine stocks.

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