A message from Manish: What makes a fair wage fair?

SETU + Matr Boomie team: Devendra, Rashmi, and Manish

SETU + Matr Boomie team: Devendra, Rashmi, and Manish

One of the key promises of Fair Trade is Fair Wages for producers. This is something consumers can relate to and get behind. With consumers making more conscious decisions, supporting products where the supply chain is fairly compensated is key. The big question is determining what “fair” is. Who should decide the fair wage for a woodcraft artisan in a small village in rural India?

From an Indian perspective, where every region and every community is unique in its socio-economic context, I would argue that no one but that individual artisan can determine what is fair for him/her. Ask yourself this: “Would I find it offensive if someone else told me what I deserved?”

We believe fair wages are wages that allow for an artisan to provide for her family the basic amenities, food, security and a small amount of saving.

However, when it comes to ensuring Fair Wages, simply having the artisan determine their own wages is occasionally not sufficient. Many times I hear the argument: If a buyer does not negotiate down with artisans, is it fair wage? Not always.

The determination is whether the artisans are empowered enough to stand up for what they really think is fair. Oftentimes, they have been "market conditioned" to agree to low wages. Local traders can take advantage of them when they are out of other trade options. Most times we find these "market wages" exploitative, leading artisans to poverty in the long term. This is a symptom of a community being marginalized.

Bell making artisan family with Matr Boomie team members in NW India

Artisans themselves realize that these "market wages" are unsustainable. However, it’s a long process for them to gain confidence in their art form, feel empowered, and stand up for what they believe is fair. Sometimes we are able to support them in the process by:

  1. Asking for high-quality artwork where they feel they can ask for higher wages.

  2. Doing a cost analysis for them so they can see what the actual costs, helping them better determine their selling price.

  3. Entertaining negotiation for higher wages.

Bell craft artisan showing us how they tune these bells

As craft importers, we are usually the first enterprise in the region to agree to higher wages. Over time, we see artisans negotiating with other buyers in the region and soon the "market wages" get fairer from the artisans’ point of view. We’ve realized that we have to be close to the artisan community in order to observe their socio-economic context and understand what a sustainable wage should be. Having our own team (SETU) in India allows us to support the community in achieving this key promise of Fair Trade. I need to mention here that it is not a blind agreement but an informed and rational decision balancing sustainability and marketability.

It is not a blind agreement but an informed and rational decision balancing sustainability and marketability.

One of the best examples of this process is the bell artisan community we work with. Over the last few years, their wages have gone up by 30%-40%. The artisans are gaining confidence in their work and the art has gained respect in the community based on the new wages. For us, Fair Trade is about artisans gaining a voice, and negotiating with confidence is surely a sign of that.

Would you like to add to the conversation? Comment below. If there are topics you’d like us to explore in a future blog, comment or send an email to marketing@matrboomie.com. It is our goal to inform people on Fair Trade, our mission, and the global artisan community.