Bidi Workers’ Protest to Stall Tax Increase Not Spontaneous

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Last Updated on April 4, 2022

Bidi Workers' Protest in Bangladesh to Stall Tax Increase Not Spontaneous, But Orchestrated by Factory Owners: PROGGA’s Study Unveils. Each year ahead of the declaration of the national budget, bidi workers are seen taking to the streets against any tax increases on bidis.

The protests continue even after the budget is finalized. However, such protests by bidi workers are not spontaneous, rather staged by factory owners. Research and advocacy organization PROGGA (Knowledge for Progress) unveils this finding in its study titled Understanding The Reasons Behind Bidi Workers’ Protests In Bangladesh: A Qualitative Investigation.

The study was conducted in 2021 in the districts of Lalmonirhat, Rangpur, Pabna and Kushtia, selected considering the concentration of bidi factories and the frequency as well as the intensity of bidi workers’ protests. A total of 92 participants comprising bidi workers, labor leaders, representatives of local civil society organizations were purposively selected for the study.

The findings of the study were unveiled today (Saturday, 11 March 2022) during an event at the CIRDAP International Conference Centre, Dhaka. The study was conducted with support from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK).

The study reveals that associates of factory owners, some marketing officers and agents of the companies work as organizers of such protests. Although there are no welfare organizations for bidi workers, some so-called labor leaders, along with company people, are the ones who speak in the human chains and protest gatherings.

The only task assigned to bidi workers is to stand mutely behind them. To draw the attention of the government, factory owners bring workers to Dhaka from different parts of the country. During such trips, factory owners pay conveyance, food and other expenses. Poor bidi workers are unable to bear the costs of such protests.

PROGGAs Study Unveils Program
PROGGA’s Study Unveils Program

Eminent economist and the convener of the National Anti-Tobacco Platform, Dr. Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad said, “I agree with the research findings. Bidi industry is a very hazardous sector. It is an imperative that the government discourages such industry.” Md. Mostafizur Rahman, Lead Policy Advisor, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK), said, “The Bidi industry is the perfect example of exploitation of workers. The factory owners are the real beneficiaries of such staged protests.”

Dr. Nasir Uddin Ahmed, former Chairman of National Board of Revenue (NBR), said, “I completely agree that bidi workers' protests are, in fact, staged. I witnessed firsthand while I was the Chairman of NBR.” Hossain Ali Khondoker, Coordinator (Additional Secretary) of National Tobacco Control Cell (NTCC) said, the Bidi industry should be brought under rigorous monitoring to end the use of child labor in this sector.

Dr. Mahfuz Kabir, Research Director of Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), said, “The low-income demographic is the main consumer of bidi. To discourage bidi use, we need to impose higher taxes.”

According to the study, Akiz Bidi Company is the de facto leader of such protests. The intensity of the protests is particularly high in places where there are Akiz bidi factories. Besides, the owners of Aziz Bidi and Maya bidi in Rangpur and Bangla Bidi in Pabna took the workers to the movement. Small bidi factory owners and their agents also feel pressured to take part in such protests in order to protect their business.

Workers interviewed during the study informed that factory owners often use fearmongering tactics, saying if the prices of bidi are raised, then the whole industry will collapse; there will be no work in bidi factories. They also say the government wants to shut down the bidi industry. Factory owners also coerce workers, threatening to revoke the workers' cards or to shut down factories if the workers do not participate in protests.

So, workers are forced to stage protests opposing tax increases on bidis. It was also revealed that there is currently no welfare association for bidi industry workers. Some organizations may bear such a name but, in reality, those organizations deal with the interests of factory owners and do not even have any workers as members. Factories also do not allow the formation of any worker’s union or association. Previously, such attempts resulted in mass layoffs in different factories.

Another shocking revelation of the study is that the companies are the ultimate beneficiaries of bidi workers' protests. For example, due to protests from bidi factory owners and workers, in 2019, the National Board of Revenue (NBR) revoked additional taxes on bidi. As a result, bidi factory owners got a BDT 28 increase in profit per 1,000 sticks.

However, bidi workers only saw a meager BDT 6 increase in their wages per 1,000 sticks. It should be noted that due to the government's decision to increase only retail prices of bidi, not taxes, during the period of 2018-2020, bidi factory owners saw a BDT 118.8 increase in the sale per 1,000 sticks.

The study makes several recommendations which include imposing higher taxes on bidis to discourage consumption of bidis among the most vulnerable populations; utilizing revenues collected from increasing bidi taxes for the rehabilitation of bidi workers and supporting alternative livelihoods for them.

The study also suggests bringing the bidi industry under rigorous monitoring for compliance with tax and labor laws especially related to the use of child labor and providing support to bidi factory owners to switch to other businesses and this can be incentivized through loans or other assistance.

Nadira Kiron, Co-convener of ATMA, hosted the event whereas Md. Hasan Shahriar, Head of Tobacco Control, PROGGA, presented the findings. ABM Zubair, Executive Director, PROGGA, Mortuza Haider Liton, convener of ATMA, Muhammad Ruhul Quddus, Bangladesh Country Lead, Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI), and leaders of other anti-tobacco organizations were among the speakers of the event.

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