Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bangladesh: Hazardous "bidi” cigarette factories

Photo: Mushfique Wadud/IRIN. Backbone of Bangladesh's bidi cigarette industry

Source: IRIN

DHAKA, 19 September 2012 (IRIN) - Even after working 12 hours a day six days a week in toxic factory conditions rolling cigarettes in Bangladesh - followed by more cigarette rolling work at home - Shahnaz Begum, a 30-year-old mother of two, still cannot afford to feed her family.

“With the rising food prices, I struggle to feed my family with this income. My health pays the price,” said Begum who lives in Tangail District in the country’s northeast.

Bidi is a locally-produced cigarette made of tobacco flakes rolled in tree leaves. Some 50 million cigarettes are produced annually in 117 factories countrywide, according to US-based NGO Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. A pack of 25 “bidis” costs at most 7 US cents. 

Health experts warn that working conditions pose serious health risks to workers.

“Primarily women and children are employed under inhuman conditions in these `bidi’ factories... These workers toil long hours at huge risk to their health,” said Vandana Shah, director of Southeast Asia for the Tobacco-Free Kids NGO.

NGOs place the number of people involved in bidi production in Bangladesh between 65,000 and 220,000. Official figures are unavailable.

A 2012 study by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reported that in a typical bidi factory more than 150 people work at the same time in dark, poorly ventilated, cramped rooms without protective equipment. Workers are constantly exposed to tobacco dust and toxic chemicals; coughing, chest pains, vomiting and headaches are common ailments.

“I know that the work is harmful to my health but we do this as we do not have any option,” said a long-time bidi worker, Moni Akhter, 25.

“Home workers, who have bidi rolling as additional income, are potentially exposing their entire families, including children, to the dust,” said Ingrid Christensen, a senior specialist on occupational safety and health who covers East and South Asia at the International Labour Organization (ILO) office in Bangkok.

According to a survey by Dhaka-based NGO Work for a Better Bangladesh, women and children working in bidi factories often go unpaid as they are seen by employers as family helpers of male workers, or at most earn 25 US cents for rolling 1,000 “bidis”. In some cases, middlemen get a portion of those earnings.

Toiling for a pittance

Data from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics place the average daily wage of bidi workers at close to US$1 for men and 80 cents for women. The national average is $1.65.

“While the workers toil long hours at huge risk to their health, bidi factory owners enjoy tremendous profits and political clout,” said Shah from Tobacco-Free Kids.

Local media reported two workers were killed in July at one of the country’s largest bidi factories in Western Kustia District, 130km from Dhaka, when security guards opened fire on protesters calling for better pay.

Agencies and activists urge the government to find alternative safer work for bidi workers or provide them with social protection, which almost no bidi workers now receive due to the informal, unregulated nature of their work. In addition, the government should help reduce demand for bidis.

“One of the most direct ways to address this is for the government to significantly raise the taxes on bidis, as Bangladesh bidis remain one of the cheapest smoked products in the world,” said Shah.