While India now boasts a computer industry akin to silicon valley, there are still millions of informal workers such as Bidi rollers who earn barely enough to survive and are literally dying for a living.
Jalaja works in the Bidi industry. Every day, she rolls hundreds of little cigarettes known as Bidis. The work is monotonous and pays barely enough to live on, but worst of all, it’s dangerous to her health and to the health of those around her.
I have been doing Bidi rolling for four years. I got health problems from it: chest pains, pains in my legs and so on. That is why I am thinking of another occupation.
In India, rolling Bidis is an industry that employs more than 5 million workers, most of them women. Prolonged exposure to the kind of tobacco that is required to make Bidis and long hours in unhygienic working conditions are known to cause asthma, bronchitis and TB.
Bidi work is one of the many types of informal and unprotected labour performed by women in India. The work is so poorly paid that some never break the cycle of poverty that locks them into unhealthy lives.
The International Labour Organization has joined with local groups such as The Working Women’s Forum, to improve conditions for women in this industry. and provide training in less hazardous and better-paying jobs.
Arun Kumar, ILO Project Manager
The ILO has two objectives, one is to improve the conditions of the bidi industry itself which essentially means organizing women into self help groups, beacuse they usually work in their homes, isolated not used to coming together. The other objective is whether women can be trained to do something else, whether they can be enabled to take up some other occupations.
Zojeth and Ramleth have recently been trained to make paper folders for files. Though they still sometimes roll bidis, their new skill allows them to earn more money while working in a healthier environment.
Before, even though I had studied, I didn’t feel educated. Now, not only can I make a living, but I have discovered a new way of life. (Own voice) Life is very good...
For Zojeth and other bidi workers, the good life may lie in unrolling some of the lessons of the past and retraining for a better future.