Scent of sadness: The woes of Bengaluru's agarbatti workers

Bengaluru: Noor Jaan has been working at the agarbatti manufacturing unit near Wilson Garden for more than ten years now. She is 60 years old and works from 9.30am to 8pm. "On an average, I produce around 7000 incense sticks every day. We are paid on Rs 800 or 900 on a weekly basis," she says.

Agarbattis light up our homes with their intoxicating fragrance but the lives of workers who produce them are spent in dungeons. Well, almost.
Picture this: It is not just the low pay and long working hours, the working conditions are harrowing as well. Workers, and most of them are women, have no washroom. There are no exhaust fans at the unit, and not enough windows. They don't have insurance and PF facility because the units aren't registered. And there is no union since it is in the informal sector.

But the industry comes under the Karnataka Factory Act. Unfortunately, none of the labour laws are being followed.

Seventy-year-old Zohra, another worker, has been rolling agarbattis for more than 20 years now. "This place does not even have a proper window. There is no exhaust fan. Where will the fresh air come from," she asks.

Similar to other workers, Zohra suffers from several health issues. And her salary is not enough to cover the medical expenses.

"I suffer from chest pain and wheezing problem," she says. "My husband died a few years ago. These days children do not look after parents, so I earn and look after my expenses. If I have to go for medical treatment, then I have to spend a day on it. I will lose a day's earnings."

Jyothi, who is 28, works at an agarbatti unit in Chamrajpet. Her mother, who was an agarbatti worker, passed away two years ago. "We could not afford higher education, so my parents got me married. My husband is an auto driver. I am working so that I can provide a better education to my children as I do not want them to do menial jobs like us," she says.

Working conditions at her unit are similar to others. "We do not have washroom at our unit. We wait till we get home," she says. The trick, Jyothi says, lies in "not drinking water" and "not eating much".

Several women take the raw materials provided by factories and roll the agarbattis at their homes. Coal, sticks made out of bamboo, tree gum and wooden dust go into the making of agarbattis. Once the agarbattis are rolled, they are sent for perfuming, where the agarbattis are dipped in a solution and sent for packing. The perfuming and packing are done by a different set of workers.

The long working hours, whether at home or in the unit, take a toll on the bodies. But what option do the workers have?

Sophia, who is 80 years old, has been rolling agarbattis for 30 years. "I get body pain and have skin allergy due to the long working hours. I earn Rs3600 per month. Can I keep spending it on medicines?" she asks.

Yet she will go on, she has to, a she wants a better life for her grandchildren. My sons do menial jobs. "I want my grandchildren to study and be financially secure," she says.

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