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Behind a Hot Smoke, Hard Labor: Women Toil to Supply Bidi Cigarette
Behind a Hot Smoke, Hard Labor: Women Toil to Supply Bidi Cigarette
by MIRIAM JORDAN Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
INDIA; Source: The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, Tuesday,
AHMEDNAGAR, India -- Surekha Suram sits on the floor of her one-room
shack, rolling a reddish-brown leaf filled with tobacco flakes and then
tying one end with a thread. On a good day she makes about 1,000 of these
minicigarettes, or bidis, earning about 80 cents.
Smoking bidis has become a hot fad among young American hipsters. Exports
to the U.S. of the cheap, fruit-flavored cigarettes (pronounced "beedees")
have doubled in the past year. Behind the trend is a global supply line
that starts half a world away, in impoverished homes in rural India where
underpaid women labor long hours to keep the goods flowing.
Since the turn of the century, when Indians began smoking hand-made
cigarettes in large numbers, illiterate women have eked out an existence
much as Ms. Suram does today. Nowadays, bidi-making employs about five
million Indian women, making it second only to farming. It is often
carried out under exploitative conditions, and the cigarettes may pose
health risks for the rollers as well as the smokers.
The bidi, which is filled with locally grown, sun-cured tobacco, looks
something like a marijuana joint. It rarely carries a filter and is
skinnier and shorter than a white stick cigarette. "It tastes better" too,
says 19-year-old Salvador Rasco as he buys a couple of packs at Ye Ole
Tobacco Shop in Savannah, Ga. The only drawback, he says, is "you gotta
keep smoking them, or they go out on you," a result of the poor
combustibility of the tendu leaf the tobacco is wrapped in.
Bidi manufacturers say they are performing a national service by providing
work for the women. "If they didn't do this, what other job could these
women do?" asks Praful Patel, who employs 50,000 women across eight states
and is a member of parliament. In terms of worker comfort, "it's just like
knitting," he says. "It's a fine-tuned, nice job."
Labor activists accuse manufacturers of keeping wages low and turning a
blind eye to exploitation. Since most rollers work at home, it is tough to
enforce worker-protection laws or prevent child labor. "Bidi workers can't
sustain a struggle with employers because they're living hand-to-mouth,"
says R.K. Ratnakar, general-secretary of the All India Bidi, Cigar and
Tobacco Workers Federation, of which Ms. Suram is a member. Labor-ministry
officials acknowledge many bidi rollers enlist their young daughters,
though child labor is illegal.
Surekha Suram, who ekes out a living in rural India rolling bidi
cigarettes by hand from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., lines up at a warehouse to have
her output inspected by checkers.
Ms. Suram, 43 years old and a widow, says she started rolling bidis when
she was 13. Her two teenage daughters roll as well. Ms. Suram earns about
$18 a month. That is low for India, where the average monthly household
income is $40.
Her day begins at 5:30 a.m., when she fetches cooking and bathing water
from a well at the end of a squalid lane where she lives. She cooks a
breakfast of flatbread and vegetables, and tidies up her dank, windowless
one-room home, in which she eats, works and sleeps on a rope cot.
By 9 a.m., Ms. Suram is sitting on the ground indoors, rolling bidis. She
works until 11 p.m., completing a bidi every 25 seconds, except for an
hour when she walks to a warehouse nearby to drop off her bidis and pick
up her pay and more tobacco flakes, tendu leaves and thread for the next
"I can't afford to take a break," she says, eyes focused on the large
metal tray on her lap where she works. "I have to fill my stomach and that
of my children."
Though there is no proof that rolling causes respiratory diseases, the
incidence of tuberculosis and bronchial asthma among bidi rollers is
higher than that among the general population, according to research by
the Factory Advisory Services and Labor Institute in Bombay, a unit of the
Labor Ministry. Ms. Suram and her colleagues in this western Indian town
complain of back strain and neckaches, and they cough from the dust they
Bidis are a fixture in India, where eight are consumed for every
conventional cigarette. Annual sales are around $1.4 billion. Despite a
surge in demand from the U.S. and other Western markets during the past
two years, exports account for less than 1% of sales, according to the
bidi-industry federation of India.
Bidis in India aren't candy-flavored, and it isn't clear who first had the
idea to add flavors for Western markets. Sable Waghire & Co., an Indian
manufacturer that exports bidis in 18 flavors to the U.S., says it began
experimenting with flavoring about four years ago and decided to target
the overseas market after flavors flopped in India. Large U.S. importers,
such as Kretek International Inc., Moorpark, Calif., tout aromas from
strawberry and mandarin orange to vanilla and black licorice on their Web
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says bidis
are more harmful than regular cigarettes because they contain at least
three times more tar and nicotine. Some U.S. lawmakers are concerned that
bidis are being sold illegally to minors.
In India, where bidis are deemed the poor man's cigarette, a bundle of 25
costs about eight cents. A pack of name-brand regular cigarettes sells
here for about $1. By contrast, in the U.S., a pack of 20 bidis costs at
least $2, while regular cigarettes can cost more than $3 a pack.
Sable Waghire pays its 60,000 women rollers, including Ms. Suram, about 80
cents per 1,000 bidis, according to co-owner Sanjay Sable. That wage is
stipulated by Maharashtra, a relatively prosperous state where he
It's twice as much as some competitors in states with lower minimum wages
or more lenient supervision, Mr. Sable says. He also contributes to
pension and welfare plans for his workers, a federal-government
requirement fulfilled by fewer than half of India's bidi employers,
according to the union.
Twice in the past three years, Mr. Sable and other manufacturers in
Maharashtra have closed their operations to protest a state order to raise
wages. The government backed down both times. "The bidi sector offers work
to such a large number of people," says S.K. Das, director general of the
Labor Ministry. "We have to make sure it keeps going."
For rollers, much of the trouble is caused by middlemen, who are
contracted by big firms to keep track of the far-flung labor pool. Bidi
rollers and human-rights groups say middlemen sometimes dodge the minimum
wage, paying as little as 30 cents a day. Another ploy is to undersupply
tobacco, leaves or thread and then make deductions for shortfalls in
What's more, as much as one-fifth of a roller's daily production is
typically rejected as defective, with the value cut from the worker's
Ms. Suram and some colleagues recently took to the streets to protest the
poor quality of leaves they receive, to no avail. All told, women often
end up earning "half their entitlement," says a 1999 report prepared by
the International Labor Organization.
On a recent afternoon, the Sable Waghire warehouse where Ms. Suram and
other bidi workers take their output was crowded with about a thousand
women amid piles of leaves and gunny sacks of tobacco. Clad in bright
saris, they stood in long queues, trays in their arms, waiting to have
their day's work inspected by a barefoot bidi checker, who sat on a wooden
table against the wall. He quickly sifted through each woman's bundle,
chucking defective bidis -- those with slightly torn or discolored leaves
-- into a reject pile on the floor.
One disgruntled bidi roller, dressed in a pink sari with a ponytail
hanging to her waist, was shouting at a bidi checker. The previous day,
she had sent her daughter to deliver her production, and the checker had
rejected 10% and cut her pay. "I sent my daughter because I couldn't come,
and you tricked her," roars the woman, who gives her name as Nirmala. "My
bidis are good quality! I am an experienced bidi roller!"
Ms. Suram had a better day. After lining up to have her bidis inspected,
she breathed a sigh of relief: Not a single one was rejected. The bidi
checker jotted down her production on a card, which Ms. Suram carried to
another line. There she was given 80 cents in coins and tattered bills.
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