Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Night and Fair Trade

"Fair trade" is one of those terms that's used a lot but not well understood. Most people, funnily enough, seem to associate the term with images of rows and rows of poorly paid workers slaving over sewing machines in some hot, sweaty factory making athletic footwear. And sadly, in the developing world, this is still very much a reality.

In Thailand, the exploitation of workers is harder for western people to imagine and harder for us to address. The vast majority of Thai workers are indivuduals - housemaids, waiters, massage therapists, gardeners etc - working in unstructured employment with no union representation and no understanding of their basic rights. Often those businesses are not registered and pay no tax which, in turn, means the very modest social insurance premium isn't paid and the workers are not entitled to use the government sponsored health scheme.

Our Arun Thai Natural workers are registered for social insurance and therefore can access hospitals and medicines very, very cheaply (even though it does often mean half a day's wait at the hospital clinic). The part of "fair trade" that is so hard to grapple with and explain is all the unspoken, poorly defined expectations that workers (quite rightly) have. "My child is sick." Fair trade says yes, by all means take a paid day off because we know you have no alternative. "I have thong sia (broken stomach) and need to go home". Fair trade says workers can't plan to be sick and in this tropical environment, our not-very-well-educated workers are coming to us legitimately with this one, rather often. "Tomorrow is a Buddha day and I have to go to the temple." Fair trade says expression of religion is important and a basic right, and so do we, regardless of the ridiculous number of Buddha days on the Thai calendar. "My cousin died and I need to go to the funeral for 5 days." Culturally, this is a hugely important rite and very often the funeral does go for 5 or even 7 days, plus travel time to another province. Fair trade says "Take your time and would you like some help with the bus fare?" During the intense phase of the recent political unrest, fair trade meant giving staff paid time off as schools were closed and safety on the roads was questionable. And early last week, while we still were under strict curfew, fair trade meant letting staff leave early so they could collect children, go to the talaad and still be home in time without worrying.

Tonight, as I sit pondering the huge backlog of work and which staff are coming in tomorrow, fair trade makes no business sense at all. The number of hours worked by our people in the last 3 to 4 weeks was abysmal. Fair to them, but abysmal in business and accounting terms. No western company in a western country would or could absorb all those extra costs; somewhere there would be fine print about a limit on the number of times one could have thong sia, or that one had to make up extra hours if you took time in lieu to go to the temple. Many would say we should deduct wages, but in a subsistence culture like Thailand, that would be literally taking food off the table, which isn't fair.

I think back to the weeks of political unrest, curfews, the start of the school year and the major Visacha Buja holiday last Friday; every single one of those events was critical and needed to be allowed for. I try to think how I will make up for the extra costs at a time when our Thailand based sales are way down post red-shirt violence, and I know somehow I will find a way. Or not, which will just mean some creative accounting required. When the harsh practicalities of fair trade weigh me down on Sunday nights, I like to think of Pa Mon. She works for us chopping and slicing herbs for drying, and she pounds and ties the Thai Herbal Balls. She has very severe epilepsy and now, at the age of about 43 (she's not quite sure of her age) she is, for the first time in her life, getting regular seizure medication. She has mild brain damage from endless seizures her whole life, but she's an incredible worker who never gets bored. Last Friday when all the other staff took the day off for Visacha Buja, she wanted to come to work. She lives with an alcoholic younger brother and staying home in their small one roomed "apartment" was not a great prospect. So she came to work on a tuk-tuk and enjoyed working alone, drinking our coffee and singing along to the Thai luuk thung music (think country and western meets heartbroken pop). She recently had her first paid sick day ever and was quite offended when I brushed away her almost prostrated wai on pay-day.

Arun Thai Natural is proud of its position on fair trade and proud that every single thing we make is done in such a way that not only are people not exploited, they are actively supported and trained and empowered. We think it makes our products better, and we like to think you will appreciate that difference next time you buy and use one of our products.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Beginning again always starts from the dust....

A little over a year I grumbled at my friend, David, who stepped on a piece of orchid that had broken off as he moved his restaurant. I picked up the two little leaves, dusted them off and carefully took them home, poking them into a few bits of coconut husk. For over twelve months they have struggled and then about 2 months ago the growth spurt began. New leaves started - quite a few of them - and this weekend the very first flower. It's a smallish spray, not very glamorous by Thai orchid standards, but incredibly fragrant. And beautifully timed.

Today Thailand, similarly, is beginning to pick itself up from the dust after a terrible outbreak of political violence that has left over 80 people dead and 1,300 people injured. Not to mention a shattered national image and a massive amount of damage to its cities and people's livelihoods.

Arun Thai Natural has wanted to weep over the last months as the protests accelerated and the tourists dwindled. Our Chiang Mai based income dropped over 80%. This last week we have bene unable to trade due to the curfew. In practical terms, this has meant that I simply couldn't give our Production Manager the promised bonus to buy a new fridge after hers broke - in 42C early-rainy-season heat, to have no fridge is a disaster. For her, as a single mother with 3 dependent children, it has meant an extra 20 baht a day needing to be spent on ice for the cooler box we gave her and has also meant 2 hospital trips, medicines and several days off work and school while her youngest child, aged 2, struggled with food poisoning. These are the people costs of the political unrest that can never be measured or counted or, indeed, compensated.

For us, today, we see an end to the turmoil. Tonight is the last night of the curfew in Chiang Mai. On Monday, the banks and the post offices will be open again, so we can ship out the orders from mid last week that simply had to wait. We are blessed with customers around the world who were more concerned for our safety and our peace of mind than when their orders would ship.

Thai people are remarkably resilient and I look at my little blooming orchid as a symbol of hope. I pray that I, personally, may always be this resilient. And I pray that the Thai people as a whole may also pick themselves up out of the dust, grow some new political leaves and let the old, bruised, yellowing ones fall away. Thailand will bloom again as my little orchid has and Arun Thai Natural will be doing its part to support the ordinary people here in Northern Thailand. When you buy our products and help tell other people what we do, you are like the fine mist at evening watering times that allows the new flower spike to come. When you share our link on facebook or encourage people to follow our blog, you indirectly help us to build online sales income that offsets the economic impact that this political violence has, and will continue to have for some time. And that means simple things, like allowing us to employ an extra worker as our online orders build, or enabling me to give a valued worker a simple bonus which will allow her to buy a new fridge.

Time for the evening watering.... and new flowers.