Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, together hold 50 percent of the market share in India’s Agarbatti Industry.
Shabina Banu, 43, lives on the second floor in a house in the narrow lanes of Goripalya. Her home is filled with four of her children and the fragrance of three thousand agarbattis she rolls, every day.
She started rolling agarbattis from home when she was “the age of my daughter” she said. Her daughter is eleven years old. “Then I used to get five rupees for rolling thousand battis. Now I get Rs. 32. Five rupees was a lot back then but Rs. 32 nowadays means nothing today,” she said.
The minimum wage as per the latest notification by the government is around Rs. 46 to Rs. 49, depending on the size but the notification does not mention the kind of workers.
Ravikumar, a labor commissioner at Karnataka Labour Welfare Board said that, “minimum wages are the same for both home-based and factory workers. These workers are not organized and unaware of their rights. They have very little bargaining power because many middle-men are involved.”
A report by National Human Rights Council says that home-based work is not recognized as work but something women at home do for “leisure.” These workers need to organize not so much for the working conditions but to continue to have work.
“Karnataka is one of the largest Agarbatti producing state in the country, most of it is produced in Bangalore or Mysore. The industry mostly employs women for rolling agarbattis,” Thomas, secretary of All India Agarbatti Manufacturing Association (AIAMA) said.
He further said that the industry has equal number of workers who are working in the factories as well as in homes. “Home based workers are illiterate and unskilled women living in villages therefore it is very difficult to give them minimum wages. They are happy with whatever they are offered by the contractors.”
Shabina however has been rolling agarbattis from 32 years but could not go to the factory and work because she also have to look after her family at the same time. “All the benefits are offered to the factory workers and not workers like me. They send us away if we ask them to increase our wages. We do not have an option but to work for them,” she said.
Thomas said that, “Though the number of workers in the factories is almost equal to home-based workers, factory workers are more skilled and experienced. The dough which is used in making agarbattis, is a proprietary product and there is always a risk of home based workers diluting the dough to increase the productivity.”
However a study reported that “home based rollers are able to match in four hours the productivity achieved by factory workers in eight hours due to the congeniality of the work environment and the flexibility in their schedule allowing them to vary tasks.”
“The estimated number of these home based workers in Bangalore are 3.5 lakhs. These are only working for the 300 factories associated with us. There are also lot of small factories whose data is impossible to get,” Thomas said.
According to Shabina, “there are a lot of benefits of working from home as the work is flexible and there is less exploitation whenever there is a festival. But the factory workers get a lot of job security and higher pay. I sit and roll battis from six in the morning to six in the evening and simultaneously look after my kids. Ninety six rupees for a day is not enough even for my children let alone the other needs”
Chidananda, joint labor commissioner at Karnataka Labour Welfare Board said that “following all the rules and giving minimum wages to factory workers as well as the home home-based workers is not possible. This is because product is sold at a very less price and there is meagre profit in the agarbatti industry. It is the same in the Beedi Industry.”
He also said that trade organisations were there but they led to the shutting down of various agarbatti factories. In the case of beedi industry, however the decline is due to the central government’s policy to ban smoking in public places.
“The manufacturers are trying to completely eliminate the process of rolling agarbattis by installing machines that will roll them. Then, the workers would be needed to operate those machines and other tasks such as packing and finishing,” Thomas said.
Arbeya, used to roll agarbattis in Srirampura till a year ago. But she had to stop because her husband left her. “I have two daughters and 90 rupees for a full day work is not enough to feed them. Due to this, I have to leave my daughters at my sister’s house and wash clothes in some houses nearby,” she said.
She also mentioned that because the factory is a little far from her place it was difficult for her to travel to take the raw material and deliver the finished product. “No compensation is provided for the bus fare or the small tables we had to roll the agarbattis on. After sitting for 6-7 hours in the same position, they cut our pay if the weight of finished products does not match the raw material provided to us.”
The study also mentioned that “Agarbatti workers are especially vulnerable to postural and locomotive system problems due to highly confined and repetitious nature of their work as well as to skin problems due to exposure to Phthalic acid esthers used in the production of aggabattis.”
Saba, an orthopaedic surgeon explained that sitting and rolling incense sticks hunched over low tables puts extra stress on the workers’ joints. “Because the weight of their upper body is placed on their hips, it puts pressure on the pelvis and hip joint. Sitting in this position for long hours also puts load on the upper body may also decrease the blood circulation in their lower limbs.”
“It is important to avoid slouching as it develops or worsens postural issues, neck pain and back pain. Existing issues in the hips, knees or ankles can make it very difficult to get up from the after working for long hours,” he added.
Manjula Ramachandra from the Indian Institute of Social and Economic change (ISEC) said that unorganized workers constitute of 93 percent of the total workforce in our country. “Home-based women workers in the Agarbatti industry are not directly employed by the companies but are outsourced to various middle men. Most of the time, contractors have no compassion and empathy for these workers. These workers have some flexibility as they set the targets for themselves, but are paid very less and there are no schemes for their welfare,” she said.
She also said that many big companies do not include these home-based workers in their data base which in turn increase the production with only a small part of the workers. “The factory workers are constitute of only 30 percent of the total workers and rest of the workers are home-based. With the minimum wages, factory workers are also entitled to Employees State Insurance and Employees Provident Fund but, due to the lack of awareness and organization struggle to get, even the minimum wages,” she said.
Mohit Kumar, a public policy expert said that we often see in our country that the challenges are not with laws framed but their enforcement. “It was recently that the government took note of the workers of the Agarbatti workers’ plight and broadened the scope of their minimum wages to include the community,” he said.
He further said that adequate staff should be recruited by the labor law enforcement department to form squads who can check the working conditions regularly and to also take actions against the ones responsible for non-compliance. “A survey should be conducted by the government to enroll all the home-based and factory workers is the industry for different government schemes that exist according to their needs. These schemes could be related to insurance, health and education.”
“Government programs like Khadi Agarbatti Aatmanirbhar Mission needs to be scaled up in regions that are manufacturing hubs. This could also be carried out in a cluster model, wherein micro manufacturing facilities with machines and proper working conditions are established with the support of the government or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) foundations.