Reaching Aarong’s artisans

Aarong is facing significant challenges from ‘independent producers’ – people who manufacture and supply products themselves as well as purchase products made by individual, rural women and resell them to Aarong – in obtaining information about the identity of artisans. This information is needed to verify payments (as required by fair trade standards) and Aarong would like to leverage it to better understand and improve the well being of the artisans.

At Aarong’s request, the Social Innovation Lab convened a brainstorming session with many BRAC directors to identify strategies to capture the identity of the approximately 27,000 artisans that are not known to Aarong, as well as opportunities to acknowledge the synergies in Aarong and BRAC’s missions by specifically targeting all 65,000 artisans with needed services.

Aarong currently has 13 production centers and 636 sub-centers in 2,000 villages across Bangladesh. It provides employment to approximately 36,000 artisans and pays them a ‘fair’ wage. Artisans also benefit from welfare services including free medical services, eye check-ups, glasses, day-care facilities and retirement benefits. But Aarong is concerned about how another 30,000 or so, rural women whose products also reach Aarong’s sales outlets via the ‘independent producers’ are being compensated and treated. Aarong is worried that the ‘independent producers’ may not be paying them properly despite selling their products to Aarong at ‘fair’ prices. Aarong does not know the identities of these artisans and thus, cannot establish contact with them.

The relationship between Aarong and many of the ‘independent producers’ is good, long and well established. But many of them are suspicious of Aarong trying to directly employ or, deal with the artisans that work under them. And this loyalty issue is what poses the biggest obstacle in the way of identifying these women and learning more about their situation and needs.

BRAC is interested in exploring and learning more about how to address the needs of occupation-based populations, an example of which are rural artisans. It is an emerging issue that demands urgent cross-program attention and discussion so that specially designed activities can be implemented in the field. Moreover, if ways in which some of the artisans (with known identities or otherwise) already benefit from BRAC’s development interventions can be identified then it will give programmes excellent insights into matters like coverage and impact.

The discussion involved digging deeper into the definition of ‘fair’ wages and considering various standards with which to compare. Wages paid to readymade garments workers and agricultural laborers provide contrasting examples with each having its own appeal and merit.  Ways in which Aarong can highlight and publicize some of the socially responsible activities that it is already engaged in also came up. Some participants stated strongly that Aarong’s initiatives in this regarded need to communicated to public in general in a more direct way. However, reservations about the range and frequency of such initiatives were also expressed. Propositions as to how BRAC Research & Evaluation Division and the Community Empowerment Programme’s Polli-Shomaj platform/networks can play a role in finding out the identities of the artisans and assessing their needs were also made and discussed.

One idea that came up during the discussion was that identification cards be created for the artisans as a key through which to access BRAC’s services. If ‘independent producers’ are then allowed to hand the cards out, it may lead the artisans to believe that it is because of their association with the producers that they are able to benefit from the services. Not only can that put the ‘independent producers’ suspicions regarding Aarong’s intentions to rest, it may even help them retain artisans as well – a big problem that they are currently facing. All this may provide a strong incentive for them to cooperate and even facilitate the entire initiative.

Does it hold the key to solving the problem? Stay posted to find out!

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