Working with Artisans in a COVID-19 World

A large part of the Indian fashion industry comprises artisans and craft communities rich with heritage, culture, unique skills, and community learning. Their true value and potential have often been unrecognized by our markets, leaving them in vulnerable situations. The call for fair trade with these communities has been gaining momentum since a few years but still has a long way to go.

Fair trade as a movement aims to help producers in developing countries achieve sustainable and equitable employment.

As the pandemic hit, artisans became even more vulnerable as they lie at the bottom of the fashion supply chain. They bear the brunt of order cancellations and business disruptions due to the economic downturn.

The near future looks dismal as the demand for handcrafted products will be limited. Artisans are suffering, not only from the short-term lack of ration and money, but also from the lack of job security and long-term opportunities within their villages. With the option of migrating to cities for jobs also dwindling, artisans are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty due to COVID-19. What can organizations do?

In May 2020, we spoke to four organizations across India who work with artisans at the grassroots level. In this blog post, we highlight their concerns and actions, which center around artisans’ welfare.

We interviewed Nivedita Rai, Head-Gudi Mudi Project, Women Weave, Ranveer Sisodia, Founder, Dharohar Foundation, Seema Shah, CEO, Sadhna and Monica Boța Moisin, Founder, Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative (CIPRI).

Short Term Concern #1: Paying Wages

With orders being cancelled or postponed, the first step for many organizations is to evaluate if they can continue paying wages to the artisans they work with.

Nivedita, tells us that their operations are completely shut and their income is null. Yet, they have pledged to pay their artisanal partners in full no matter what. They started a fundraiser to cover two months of salaries and wages.

Ranveer Sisodia’s organization closely engages women from rural and urban slums and tribal areas in Gujarat. He mentions that all their export and local orders are on hold. Their summer collection has been put off. In this scenario, it has become difficult to pay wages. This compels them to explore other businesses with their artisans instead of crafts. Seema Shah faces a similar situation. At Sadhna, they have been struggling to pay their 700+ women artisans from tribal, rural, and urban slums of southern Rajasthan who are employed on a per-piece rate. That is when their Zila Parishad asked them to make masks and Hazmat suits. With 50 artisans, they produced 1 Lakh reusable cotton masks and 8,000 PPE kits. While this has helped them tide over short-term cash flow issues, their future is still uncertain.

Short Term Concern #2: Empowering and caring beyond wages

Ranveer Sisodia highlights the importance of building trust with artisans. This trust is what can sustain relations during a pandemic.

Seema Shah mentions how despite the challenging situation they are trying to keep the artisans’ spirits up. They are regularly counselling and interacting with them through digital platforms. Recently they organized their annual governing body meeting over a Zoom call. It was the first time video calling experience for many artisans. They conducted six video calls with the artisans’ group leaders representing roughly 20 artisans.

Long Term Concern #1: Systems for resilience

COVID-19 highlighted fault lines at a systemic level by showing the lack of preparedness among many organizations.

Mahila Print, a royalty-based business model started by CIPRI, Studio Bagru and IM.PRINTED Story in Jaipur, in the view of the pandemic, made a public commitment to include a solidarity-based Emergency Fund in their business model.

The fund will factor in a monthly contribution to socio-cultural sustainability for women artisans in Bagru, Jaipur.

Monica Boța Moisin says, “The craftspeople have knowledgeable skills, and businesses must help them realize their value.” CIPRI has also released a set of recommendations for organizations and brands to ensure stable livelihoods of their artisan partners in the long run.

Women Weave is now focusing on expanding its artisans’ skill set. They are working on developing other products and less intricate crafts which can be sold at commercial price points along with their luxury products. Though most of their processes happen in-house, they are also trying to bring dyeing of fabrics in-house to become more self-sufficient.

Long Term Concern #2: Changing consumer mindset

The global consumer mindset is shifting. Consumers are realizing their role in the chain and as Monica says, “They are becoming impact investors through consumption.”

She further adds that there is a need to focus on the right terminology such as Handcrafted vs Handmade when marketing artisanal products. ‘Handmade’ minimizes the value of craft as anyone can make things by hand, but a craft has intangible values attached to it like a community learning, heritage, history, and culture.

Nivedita too speaks of raising consumer awareness on the importance of buying craft products now more than ever and what it means when artisanal production stops.

The SUSS take

The COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected the artisanal community in India. Organizations have stepped up to address short term concerns such as loss of wages and keeping artisans’ spirits up. However, it’s crucial to also reflect on the long term concerns around building resilience beyond wages and shifting consumer mindsets.

At the heart of all this lies cultivating meaningful relationships with your artisan partners based on mutual trust and respect.

This article has been written by Muskaan Gupta, Design and Communications Coordinator at SUSS, and Taran Faroqi, who is currently associated with UNHCR’s livelihood partner, Fair Trade Forum India, as a project associate working with developing refugee enterprises across Delhi, Mewat Haryana and Jaipur Rajasthan.

SUSS is a community to move the needle on sustainable fashion in India. You can learn more about us here.

A community and movement to start conversations, build collaborations, and inspire action on sustainable fashion. Homegrown in India.

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