The Work/Life Balance
In the artisanal world, the economic and social aspects of life are quite interwoven. It's very different from developed countries, like the US, where our work and life is mostly separate. We go to our workplace and focus on our jobs and disconnect from our personal social lives for the most part. At the end of the day, we go home and live life by our own rules.
For artisans, there is no such black and white division. Everything is mixed. Most times, social norms and family obligations drive artisans’ work motivation and availability. It is common for artisans to take weeks off for a birth, death, or marriage in the community. Most big festivals imply weeks of no work, regardless of what it costs them in terms of business. It is not that they don’t care; simply their priorities are different. Their bonds within the community and living by its social norms takes priority over their personal financial well being.
Cultural & Social Challenges
In a similar manner, when approaching the artisan community for changes in their art form in terms of design or process, it is less a function of process or technical details but more of a mindset change. This may be best illustrated with the following example:
We have been working with bell making artisans since we began a decade ago, and their bells are some of our best selling products. As part of our commitment to safe working conditions for our artisan partners, we visit them often to have a clear line of sight.
During these trips we learned that these bells are baked in a kiln with a powder of brass and copper. Most artisans have a very basic kiln in their backyards, and these kilns are very inefficient in terms of fuel consumption and poor exhaust - exposing artisans and their families to fumes. We also found out that this brass powder (recycled from metal industry) sometimes contained lead as an impurity. We were concerned about the fumes being potentially harmful to artisans and their families.
When we explained to artisans that their production process was potentially unsafe, they did not share our concern. They considered the process safe for themselves and their families with the argument that they have been following the exact same process for generations without any health issues. Their interest in reviewing the process and looking for an alternate to lead free brass powder or improving the kilns was low. Facts from modern science were mere theoretical numbers for them.
As much as they appreciated our concern and willingness to pay more for bells (to support the process changes ), they were not interested in tweaking their process or raw materials.
A part of this resistance was linked to trust issues. Artisans are typically suspicious of people outside of their community coming and giving ideas for change. Their reaction is understandable because many times in the past they have had experiences where changes didn't lead to trading opportunities. Lack of information and resources for making the change is also another concern. In this case, our India team offered to carry out all research on finding new materials , and we spent over 2 years finding different sources but in every instance, artisans discovered a reason why the new materials would not work.
We realized that unless artisans themselves were motivated to make this change, we could not succeed. It was no longer an issue of resource or cost, but a matter of social and tradition change.
In this case, after couple of years of hard work and research costs, we ended up changing our strategy for implementation. Our team in India worked with technical experts and came up with a new kiln design that would take out all the fumes through an efficient exhaust system. We also offered to absorb all the cost of making these new kilns. Artisans were excited by the benefits but there was still a lot of resistance. We now approach this as an efficiency issue instead of a safety issue. We were able to convince a few artisans to try and we built 5 kilns in the first round. As a part of the new kiln design, we were able to increase kiln’s capacity for baking multiple bells at one time, and also making them more fuel-efficient. These changes drastically improved their productivity and reduced costs.
When artisans started using these kilns and seeing the benefits, their thought process changed. Not only did they realize how well the new kilns reduced fumes and saw health benefits, but they also loved the increase in productivity. Suddenly the whole community opened up and all the artisans wanted these changed in their homes. For us, this was a huge success. It took our India team, SETU, years of commitment and hard work to turn this around.
Sparking change in our artisan partner communities involves:
- Identify the social elements that are part of any process and/or behavior. Not just factual or material aspects.
- Engage the community in order to motivate and own the change. It can’t be forced or charity. We have seen projects without community buy-ins turn to junk very quickly.
- Be a partner in change. Our India team’s long-term relationship got us a lot of trust and leverage. Change can’t be made by being an outsider. Physical presence on ground plays an import role here.
- Such changes are not quick and take a long term commitment.
- Bring on your creative thinking for ideas that appeal to social structure and at the same time make the required impact
We have made peace with the fact that our work to bring change is not quick or easy. Fair Trade is an ambitious goal and being true to it is hard, but we have taken on that commitment knowing good things take time. It may take years but the satisfaction it brings us is unparalleled.
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