“It’s just a little further” insisted Ganga Saud (not for the first time), as the vehicle lurched over a series of particularly large potholes along an ever-upward winding road. My colleague Rukmini Adhikari and I looked at each other in mutual trepidation – not over the road itself, but the fact that we were travelling in the opposite direction to that intended, and every drop of fuel is precious in Kathmandu these days. The political stand-off leading to the Indian border blockage has rendered misery to millions in Nepal: impossibly packed buses, power cuts (due to increased electricity use for cooking and heating), shortages of basic supplies, a return to fuelwood for cooking, and the loss of income for many with precarious jobs.
We were in principle returning to our Kathmandu office after a visit to one of the handmade lokta paper producers that supplies Helvetas’ Fair Trade branch. Lokta (the Nepali name), Daphne spp, is a bush growing in high altitude forests – one that trekkers may notice in the spring when its small pinky-white flowers fill the air with its distinctive scent. If correctly done, the fibrous bark can be harvested sustainably; the strands are then soaked and heated, turned into pulp, and spread onto a gauze mesh. This is dried in the sun to make paper. At the factory of Nepali Paper Products (P) Ltd., the raw sheets are coloured, printed, and turned into attractive books, boxes, decorations and wrapping paper.
Fourty-five year old Ganga is one of the factory workers with whom we spoke in some depth. Realising that she was worried about getting late after her shift finished at 15.00, we had offered to give her a lift home. Most of the workers at the factory live within walking distance, but Ganga explained that she had to catch a bus. With 22 years of work experience at the factory, Ganga is one of the longest-serving workers, and she cherishes her job. It has changed little over the years – day in and day out, she dyes the paper in different colours, and puts the sheets out to dry (in the sun or under cover, depending on the weather). This has enabled her to raise and educate her two sons alone, her husband having left her when the younger one was just a toddler. They are now grown men who both had an education, whilst she had none. Ganga elaborated that every day excepting Sunday, she leaves home at 6.00 to arrive for her shift at 8.00; in the evening the home journey takes longer, so leaving at 15.00 and negotiating two different buses, she is home at 18.00. Nevertheless we failed to grasp the difficulty of her journey until we experienced it ourselves, in the comfort of a good vehicle as opposed to two packed buses with a wait in-between.
Thirty-five year old Gita Tamang has worked at the factory for a mere seven years, but she echoed the importance of regular paid employment. Like Ganga, Gita is illiterate. She started work on paper dying, but now sits at an inside table with other women, folding and cutting paper for little gift boxes. Boring work? She laughed. “It’s a lot better than carrying a heavy load as I used to do in the village”. Thanks to her wages, her two children – a girl and a boy – are going to school, her husband’s income selling stone statues to tourists having proved too unreliable.
Thoughts of the earthquake are inevitably not far away. Solidly built with reinforced concrete, the factory and associated building suffered no damage. Gita’s home was only slightly damaged; Ganga, however, lost her house and now lives in a temporary structure of corrugated iron. Her eldest son has gone to Saudi Arabia to earn enough to rebuild it, leaving behind a wife and two small children who live with Ganga. Gita’s husband is also in Saudi Arabia, although he left before the earthquake.
The factory visit left me feeling confident that at least in this case, Fair Trade is providing decent employment to individuals – here over 90% of them women – whose lives are genuinely improved by the opportunity. Small details such as regulation sunhats for outdoor workers, clean overcoats, background music and good lighting indoors helped to cement this impression. At a wider level, though, the extent of labour migration is simply incredible; a recent report showed figures rising every year and it is widely quoted that over 1,500 individuals (the vast majority of them men) leave every day – mainly for the Gulf States or Malaysia. So many women are thus left to raise families themselves, and the losses arising from the earthquake have only reinforced this trend. Gita’s parting words were, “Tell Swiss people to buy many of our products so that our jobs stay safe, and we get paid overtime.” Nepal needs many, many more opportunities for decent, regular employment to change lives for the better.
The photos were taken by Jean-Pierre Grandjean