I’ve just got back from my trip to India. I travelled with Richard Brooks, the Vice President of NUS, Evette Prout a sabbatical officer from the University of Sheffield, Daisy Lindlar, a sabbatical officer from the University of Birmingham and Simon Blake, the Chief Executive of the NUS. None of the people that I was travelling with had been to India and they did not know much about cotton or how garments were made. Their excitement on the trip, their astonishment at what a complicated process it is that takes a cotton bud to a finished hoody and their interest in the projects that we saw was very uplifting.
Local democracy – a world away from a western NGO
One of the things that struck me was how different the projects that the villagers decide to do are from the sort of thing a Western NGO would do.
A great example of this is the steps that the villagers have constructed into the bathing pond. The pond, which is a rough square around eighty metres by eighty, is where the villagers go to wash themselves, their clothes and pots and pans. To someone coming from the UK, it doesn’t look that inviting but we saw similar ponds all around the area of India that we were visiting. Villagers had been getting injured when getting in and out of the pond and some elderly and young people had broken bones (a major problem when you don’t have access to decent hospitals). The steps, which were relatively inexpensive, had made the lives of the people that used them measurably better. If someone had asked me before the project – what do these people need? – Steps into the bathing pond, would not have crossed my mind. Because the way in which the Fairtrade premium is voted on by all the villagers, they can spend the money however they like.
Education and the future
Visiting the village school really makes you appreciate the facilities that my children have in the UK. The school had 5 classes but only 3 classrooms and 3 teachers including the head teacher. Some of the Fairtrade premium had been spent on books and bags for the children. The farmer’s project, Om organics, is also sponsoring some of the children in the village to go to a better school that gives them a chance of higher education. It will be interesting to follow what happens to these children. Will they all head off to the big cities of India, or will they stick around to build schools, hospitals and design the engineering works that this part of India so desperately needs.
A living wage
When we visited the factories in Tirupur, there was a lot of discussion around what constitutes a living wage. One of the factories had done an extensive analysis of 95 of their workers expenses in great detail, to show that they were paying a living wage. The living wage that they were suggesting however was far lower than some other living wage calculations that I have seen which for example assume that workers consume more meat in their diet which is more expensive. The factory managers were saying that most of the workers are vegetarian for religious reasons anyway. Another factory that we visited was building a village for their workers. The village had decent facilities, houses for the families and boarding houses for the single workers. It reminded me of the sort of thing that Josiah Salt built near Bradford for his wool mills in the Victorian era.
My initial reaction was that the thought of living in a village with my co-workers is slightly appalling and I imagine that the factory management are banking that their worker retention will be an awful lot better if they are providing housing. There is no doubt however that this project could make a massive difference to their workers lives. Decent, clean housing with toilets, running water, power etc. should be a given for all workers and I am sure that this project will represent major project for a lot of workers and their families.
Sometimes it is easy to forget why we are running a Fairtrade clothing company. When you are caught up in the day to day work of looking at sales, accounts and monitoring overheads, Fairtrade premiums seem a world away. To see the difference our small company is making to over 177 villages in Orissa, was uplifting and has given me lots of energy to get stuck into the work in the New Year. I now need to make sure that I pass on my excitement to our customers and do a good job of telling the story of our business to them too.