Namaste’s Open Week gave me the chance to meet Jhaindra Ghimire, Owner of a Nepalese fair trade garment and accessories business based in Kathmandu. Jhaindra has a University education and an MBA. His business joined Fair Trade Group Nepal as he wanted it to not just be for profit, but also to have a social purpose and there were like-minded organisations in this group (currently 21 members). Having the chance to talk to him opened my eyes to the caste system in Nepal and to the many hardships which some people are likely to endure. He explained that a lot of rebuilding had taken place in Kathmandu after the 2015 earthquakes, but not in the outlying areas. His own factory had collapsed but he had managed to sort some makeshift cover for his employees in the short term.
Namaste helped this supplier in its first few years in business with an interest-free loan of £20,000 to rent a workshop and buy machinery. Jhaindra now employs around 110 people, of which about 70 are Kamalaries, ie young women originally sold at the age of 6 or 7 to richer families as slaves, and originating from one of the lower castes, that of the Tharu who inhabit the mid- Western area of Nepal. These people tend to be honest, hard working, subsistence farmers, but can never afford to earn enough to keep their families or provide them with an education. Jhaindra told of how some of these girls needed rescuing by an NGO, the Friends of Needy Children, itself quite a dangerous task, as bonded labour is now illegal in Nepal, but the families will have paid the parents for the arrangement and will not have expected them to be taken away.
His employees receive much more than the minimum wage of about £80 (8100 Nepalese rupees) per month set by the government and Labour Unions, and receive training to help them progress through tasks. They also get 52 days’ holidays, bonuses, sick leave, and are provided with their uniform. There are also scholarship programmes for workers’ children and other social welfare programmes such as economic support to orphanages.
Kamalari girls are often involved in sewing, earning about double the minimum wage, although this task has posed problems at times with labelling, as they arrive illiterate and do not understand the wording used. Jhaindra explained that he has workers who sew, stitch, pack, process, pattern cutters who are very precise and are paid the most (up to 55,000 Nepalese rupees), and teachers who pass on skills and training.
When some of the Kamalari girls were rescued and returned to their families, trainers went to teach them skills to enable them to start employment. Jhaindra visited their families who spoke of the differences this had made to their lives. The girls are now housed in dormitories near the workplace. Jhaindra explained that there are four main castes in Nepal: Brahmin (educated classes), Kshatriya (fighters), Vaishya (workers), and Sudra (manual workers). Generally speaking, castes marry into their own caste, but attitudes are changing. Certain roles, and jobs are expected of certain castes. At times he himself is surprised at what some of the Kamalari girls can achieve with the correct training.
Of his fair trade business, Jhaindra stated: “I want to illustrate that our main aim, as well as running on a profit basis, is to extend our maximum effort to accommodating mainly the economically marginalized people by providing them with extra support, which may increase their quality of life”. Personally I cannot think of a better way to sum up what fair trade is meant to embody.