Invisible workers in the jute industry

Jute workers.jpg

Bangladesh is the second largest producer and exporter of raw jute in the world. Charlotte Timson went to visit some of Traidcraft’s projects in the Jessore district of the country, and saw how education and business support is bringing groups of women out of poverty.

Some of the first products that Traidcraft sold in our original 1979 catalogue were jute handicrafts, sourced from Bangladesh. We have a long history of working with jute farmers and with Fairtrade companies who produce and market jute products.

Traidcraft began selling fairly trading jute products from Bangladesh in our hand-drawn 1979 catalogue

Traidcraft began selling fairly trading jute products from Bangladesh in our hand-drawn 1979 catalogue

Last month I visited Traidcraft’s JEWEL project, which is focussed not on farmers or Traidcraft suppliers, but on a group who have for a long time been invisible in the supply chain: those women who produce fibres from jute trees. This is an arduous task which involves extracting and cleaning the fibres from ‘retted’ jute (which has been rotted under water to break down the non-fibrous matter). These can then be sold as raw fibre or for further processing – such as being woven into baskets or bags.

These women spend hours extracting fibre from jute, working in the early part of the morning before their daily household work begins. For a day’s work, they receive either 100 taka (£1) or, in some cases, are paid in kind with remaining jute sticks (that can then be used for fuel, fencing or holding up vegetable plants). Traidcraft Exchange works with these women to develop alternative sources of income and to address the power imbalances that exist between women and men in their communities.

We support the women to come together into self-help groups, and to set up savings and investment schemes. Our partner organisation, the local charity Ulashi Sreejony Sangha, trains groups in financial management, sustainable agriculture practices and animal husbandry. The groups also learn about the government services to which they are entitled, and are now lobbying local government officials for support in courses for skills development and for demonstration plots to be set up in the villages to showcase sustainable agriculture techniques. Members of the group have developed new income streams and enterprises, such as investing in poultry and livestock, providing poultry vaccination services, and organising soil testing for farmers adopting sustainable agriculture. Women have taken loans that will allow to taking up entrepreneurial activities, such as growing and selling vegetables in the local market and rearing poultry or livestock.

With its focus on economic development, this project also showcases Traidcraft’s Group Savings and Investment Scheme (GSIS). This is designed to support communities to invest in livelihoods on a long-term and sustainable basis. The scheme encourages poor households to start investing for their livelihood activities, either by procuring productive assets or working capital for an income generating activity. In is inherently accountable, since funds are managed by the groups themselves, within the community.

Not only do the schemes support individuals to develop new enterprises, but a percentage of the savings is set aside as a benevolence fund to provide a social security net to anyone in need. In a country like Bangladesh, where there is no government social protection, such community schemes are vital.

And how is all this related to jute? Through these groups, women have developed more confidence and learnt a range of new skills that put them on more of an even footing with men. With independent sources of income, they have become well-known and respected in their communities. The self-help group that I met explained how they met with the jute farmers for whom they do the fibre extraction to discuss their work. They explained how views around women’s roles and value in the community had changed and, through a series of discussions, they negotiated their daily wage up by 50%. This increase has benefited not only women participating directly in the project, but all women in the village.

A self-help group of jute workers in the Jessore district

A self-help group of jute workers in the Jessore district

We are halfway through this four-year project, which is supported by the Big Lottery Fund. These women have achieved so much already. I can’t wait to see what else these groups go on to achieve to address issues of inequality and to build more sustainable incomes for themselves.

Charlotte Timson is Director of Traidcraft Exchange.