Over 7,000 beedi (Suruttu) makers from eight districts of Tamil Nadu - Erode, Kancheepuram, Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, Salem, Thiruvallur, Tirunelveli and Dindigul - are in a spot as the State government has not taken any measures to increase their wages in the last four years.
Talking to Express, Tamil Nadu Cigar Producing Workers Federation's State Convenor Shanmugam said that an ordinary beedi was sold at Rs 3 or 4. "In those days, it was also imported to the United Kingdom and the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill was using our beedis," he said.
Urging the government for a wage hike, the workers filed a case and the court ordered to increase wages to Rs 50, Rs 62.50 and Rs 66.80, for every 100 beedis, in three different sizes. "However, beedi producing firms failed to implement the court order and were providing only Rs 40, Rs 47.50 and Rs 57.50 for rolling 100 beedis," he said, adding that "a worker can roll nearly 250 big or 500 small beedis per day".
Following this, a complaint was filed to the Salem Assistant Commissioner of Labour urging the State government to intervene and settle the issue.
The union, before the announcement of the new wage pact in 2018, wanted the government to announce a 70 per cent hike in wages. It also sought the beedi producing firms to provide ID cards to all workers.
Shanmugam further said that the manufacturing firms would give only Rs 1,600 as Deepavali ex-gratia. "Since the workers come under the unorganized manual labour welfare board of the government, they do not get any major benefit," he added.
As per the board's norm, Rs 1,000 in pension has to be given to workers after 60 years of age. However, many applications for various services, including accident benefit and marriage, have not been considered. The reason for this could be the 28 per cent tax levied on beedis and that had drastically brought down the sales, Shanmugam informed.
Shanmugam explained how the switch from beedis to cigarettes has adversely affected the livelihood of these workers. In Salem district alone, over 5,000 workers were employed in making beedis.
"Now, the count has dipped by 4,000," Shanmugam said. In an attempt to highlight all the issues faced by beedi makers, the federation is planning to organise a conference at Nagapattinam on July 28, he added.
The Central government has slapped Rs 4,170 import duty for 1,000 beedis. Citing this as a reason, several firms refused to increase the workers' wages for local production. However, beedis from Tamil Nadu are exported to many countries including China, EU and UK.