I met Harshali two years ago when she was a shy 17 year old with limited English speaking skills. At that time she was working as a helper at our women’s cooperative and we struck up a friendship on our shared path home after work. I was staying in an apartment close to the co-op, and Harshali's grandmother and sister were selling fish on the side of the road next to the apartment complex. After work at the co-op Harshali would help her grandma and sister until the small stand closed, at around 9 pm. Harshali is from Tamil Nadu, a state in the south of India, and her parents died when she was very young, leaving her and her three siblings behind, with only their grandmother to fend for them. Joining the millions of others who comprise Mumbai's enormous migrant workforce, Harshali's grandmother decided to emigrate to the big city in the hopes of finding work to support her grandchildren. Two years ago Harshali had just started work at the co-op. Soon after she was able to afford to send both her younger siblings to school, as well as start a college economics course.
Now she is an assistant to one of the co-op's designers and oversees all sampling work, and is just about to graduate her program. She dresses smartly, in cute matching salwar suits that show her evolving fashion taste, and speaks English well, with the confidence of a young professional woman. I believe she is on her way to becoming a designer herself someday, and I know that without her work at the co-op she could very well still be selling fish on the side of the road with her grandma and elder sister.
India as a whole is not a society that encourages social mobility. Economic brackets are enforced by caste lines, and like most industrializing nations, the poverty class is growing as the rural poor migrate from villages to mega-cities to find new kinds of work. The opportunities for economic advancement that fair trade organizations offer to women in poverty are truly a rarity. Being a part of the fair trade community means that we are ALL connected to this positive change.
While we meet and get to know the women in India who make our clothing, our customers are actually the ones who make the difference. By shopping fair trade YOU make a story like Harshali’s possible.
“Surita Auntiiiieeee!” This is a common call at our women’s cooperative in Mumbai, and is usually shouted out in a high-pitched hindi lilt. What is Surita Auntie’s job description? On a given day Auntie is performing any number of tasks, basically whatever must get done at the time. If you need your sampling fabric folded, auntie is called. If a dress hem has to be unstitched or a button applied, call auntie. Sometimes you see her sweeping up fabric scraps or cleaning up the chai cups after afternoon tea, or she is packing crisp dresses into bags for shipping.
Auntie is the first one to come in the morning and the last one to leave at night. She has the key to every room at the co-op and you feel you can trust her with your life. She is the one everyone depends on for the little stuff, which can then make the big stuff possible. “Auntie is crazy to work,” says Rosie, another women at the co-op, commenting on Auntie’s seemingly endless work ethic.
We are forever grateful to this small powerhouse of a woman. Auntie makes our hectic two weeks at the cooperative designing for Spring that much smoother. And in India, anything relatively smooth is a blessing. Auntie’s job is not the glamorous one, but she really is the grease that keeps the wheels turning. She has three kids all in their teens, and while her work at the co-op will make it possible for them to continue on to higher education, I gather it is the sense of purpose and belonging she gets from her job that also holds meaning. Our cooperative is like a family, and a lot of people depend on Auntie.
All of us have a Surita Auntie in our lives, or maybe we are the Surita Auntie in someone else’s. Thanks Auntie, we hope you realize how much you are appreciated.
My second day of design work in Rajasthan goes like this:
For me - up at 7 AM to watch the sun rise like a ball of fury over the lake. For the first time in years the lakes are full here -- rain, rain and more rain has turned this town lush with beautiful shades of green. Breakfast while e-mailing (yes, our dear, dear guest house owner installed wifi for which I am ever so thankful) consists of "egg cheese toast" and a Starbucks coffee travel packet necessary to wake me up. Off to the co-op by 9 AM, running various errands along the way.
For her - the women we work with in the sampling unit do one of two things:
1) Some are trained to use the electric sewing machines and they come in to work at the co-op on a daily basis.
These women stitch sample garments for both domestic (Fab India!) and international (Mata Traders!) customers; their work is complex and the same group of women have been at the sampling unit for over two years now. For most it is their first time working outside their homes, and Manju commented to us that what stitchers like her enjoy most about their work is the professional environment itself and the opportunity to socialize with coworkers.
2) Other women are talented hand embroiderers.
We asked Narabda, one of the embroiderers, about her morning, which sounds much like any working woman's morning routine. She rises by 7AM to cook breakfast for her family, prepare her tiffin (to-go lunchbox) and send her children off to school; by 9:30AM she meets with other co-op members to take a shared rickshaw into work, which is a ride of about 1/2 an hour. Indian business hours are 10AM-6PM, and she's home by 6:30 or 7:00 PM to cook dinner for her family (though living in a joint family, oftentimes a kind mother-in-law will have a warm dinner waiting!). Narubda tells us that today is a bit unusual for her - she normally can do her work from home and only comes to the co-op when she is needed for sampling.
Once Mata designs are finalized in the sampling unit our pieces will move to production, where over 50 different women will stitch our garments. Then, hundreds of additional women come to the production unit from surrounding villages to learn the specific hand embroidery designs we create for each piece. These ladies then take their work home to complete, which is convenient since many care for young children and there are few other ways for them to earn an income in their villages.
So much care and hard work is invested in Mata's products, not only by us, but more importantly by the Indian women we work with - we feel lucky our design process is so meaningful! We hope you will enjoy the Spring 2011 collection once it's ready!