The incense stick (or popularly known as Agarbatti in India) used in every devout Hindu households for religious purposes, is today a highly marketed commodity both in India & abroad. But not much thought seems to have gone into how these agarbattis are produced or manufactured. With limited infrastructure such as a wooden board, availability of raw materials & with little amount of skill, virtually any unskilled worker can make agarbatti in any household or sheds.
The fact that manufacturing can be any household or a shed involving a few workers, is something exploited by the companies that sell agarbattis under various brands. Although agarbatti industry falls under the Factory Act in Karnataka, many of the manufacturing units are poor households in slums which do not come under the purview of any labor laws as many of the units are unregistered units. It is estimated that there are around 250,000 workers engaged in the Bangalore – Mysore region alone, which is the highest in the country.
In a place called Ullau in the outskirts of Bangalore, all the workers are women & even involving children, belonging to either poor Muslim or dalit households. Most of these women have taken up this profession due to their extremely miserable conditions & trapped by traditions to be confined within the house to do household chores or look after children.
Earning anywhere between Rs. 20 – Rs. 22 for every 1000 sticks (piece rate basis) & depending on the type of agarbatti they produce, a single worker can earn anywhere between Rs. 100 – Rs. 120 a day if she labors for 9 – 10 hrs. a day. Given the highly inflationary situation in the country at present, the amount these workers earn is pittance compared to the rate at which it is sold in the market ar Rs. 1.00 – Rs. 1.50 to even Rs. 50 a piece (!) depending on the type & flows directly from the highly skewed model of development under capitalist globalization that pushed many poor households into such higly informal home based work due to lack of employment in the formal sector.
While companies do not directly contract the work to the workers but is usually done through middlemen, there is distinct lack of employee – employer relationship & most women are are under no obligation to meet targets or deadlines with enough freedom to produce according to their capacities. But given their poverty ridden conditions, most women labor as any other factory worker as this is their only means of livelihood that is sustaining their families today.
The problems of these workers are not confined to wages & lack of social security alone, their working conditions remain extremely dismal. Confined to dark dingy rooms without proper ventilation & lack of provision of safety gear, health hazards pose a serious risks. The common health problems that these women face include body pain & pain in the limbs due to the repetitive nature of work, skin & dust allergy allergy, gynecological problems such as abdominal pain, irregular menstruation, urinary problems & white discharge. But studies are yet to determine clear linkages between working conditions & health risks.
The agarbatti production process does not end in the households, which in fact constitutes only 10% of the total cost of the final product including raw materials. The rest 90% cost goes into perfuming (which is usually a trade secret), packaging & marketing of the brand, most of the non household based work are confined to factory premises, which are governed by labor laws.
The conditions of those workers working in licensed agarbatti manufacturing units is no better. The only difference being women receive a fixed salary & are entitled to namesake social benefits such as Provident fund (PF), Employee State Insurance (ESI) scheme, bonuses, pension etc. Most of these social benefits hardly meet the criteria for decent living standards. ESI continues to be corrupt institution with workers assessing benefits only by bribing the staff & treatment services provided under ESI run hospitals or clinics are at best second rate.
No doubt the consciousness of the workers remain low especially those working in household or unregistered units, as most of them are not even considered workers but as housewives doing part time work, by not only the govt. but also the major trade unions. Any attempt to demand increase in wages or social security results in either the middlemen threating to shift the unit elsewhere as there no dearth of labor available & desperate situation of these women leads most of them to succumb to the middleman’s threats. Also middlemen act as kind of moneylender providing loans to the workers & many workers fear losing the good graces of the middleman, as many of them remain perpetually indebted to him.
Given the significantly large number of population engaged in home based work, with estimates up to 50 million workers engaged in the entire South Asia, it becomes imperative for those fighting for minimum demands such as minimum wages, provisions of social security net as stipulated by the govt., it becomes important to question the minimum wages or social security measures being currently given by the govt. A radically different social measures are required that not only addresses the poverty stricken conditions of these workers but radically redefines who controls the institutions of labor, welfare & governance, & puts them firmly under the control of workers & trade unions, which is the only guarantee to achieving a decent employment, a living wage & social security.