Meera Bhattarai is helping low-income women to develop high margined products to sell domestically and internationally. With these margins, she is demonstrating that it is possible for employers to provide a wide array of fringe benefits not common in Nepal today.
The New Idea
Meera is initiating approaches to economic development which can employ poor women and treat them humanely. She welcomes poor women into her program, the Association of Craft Producers, and helps them develop craft and management skills, self-confidence, and a sense of ownership over their goods. She then helps them develop products and marketing arrangements that allow a sufficient margin to provide not only competitive incomes, but a wide array of fringe benefits. These benefits include an emergency welfare fund, annual bonuses, a retirement plan, an "educational allowance benefit program" to help female children go to school, and a variety of other services ranging from a ration shop/cafeteria to informal lectures and counseling.Meera hopes that her project will demonstrate that it is possible for emerging industries in Nepal to treat their employees humanely, and that financial and social profit are not incompatible. Meera's experiment serves as an example to the nation of what carefully planned, socially conscious business investment can achieve. The success of Meera's cooperative scheme lies in the re-investment of profits to benefit her employees. Meera realizes that once she establishes a substantial and concrete comparative standard, it will be easier to press for public policies that implement minimum standards elsewhere.
There is a rapidly growing supply of minimally educated or uneducated poor women in the Nepalese labor market and there is comparatively little demand for their labor. Even though the small craft and industrial sector is growing, it is all too easy to keep wages and benefits near subsistence level. The fact that women are traditionally paid less than men does not help.The difficulty women have, consequently, in finding an economic base that would support them, let alone their families, is a fundamental restraint on their potential independence. It affects them psychologically, and influences how they interact with their families and with society as a whole.
Nepal's emerging industries could provide major opportunities for women. If these opportunities are encouraged, and if the sector becomes more respectable, engaging, and economically rewarding, its social value will multiply. While most individuals and policy makers agree that these ends are desirable, most believe that they are not possible--they believe that making such arrangements and granting such benefits would deprive businesses of the flexibility they have in the marketplace. Women have traditionally had a wide variety of craft skills. Hence, doing this sort of work would complement their very demanding household and farm duties. However, these craft skills have, in the past, had little value in the marketplace.
Meera's strategy builds on the inherent strengths and skills so many Nepalese women have; notably a broad capacity to learn and grow and the habit of performing long, hard work. The approach also takes advantage of the significant market for quality Nepalese craft goods. One of Meera's chief skills is her ability to work sensitively with the women who enter her program, helping them develop both personal and craft skills. She is now working hard to institutionalize lessons she has learned over the last few years while working in the early startup phase of this endeavor.
The women who enter her program are typically socially, economically, and emotionally depressed. ACP works with them on all of these dimensions. As soon as they come into the program, ACP carefully identifies their existing skills. It then sets them to work, helping them to learn new skills and to increase their earnings from the first day. Their incomes rise as their skills develop.
Quality control is absolutely critical for the products the women craft, and ACP has designed its range of products so that each woman works on something that is within her skill range. Furthermore, ACP places a great deal of emphasis on closely associated worker participation in management. The goal is to help the producers gradually develop a sense of worth and importance.
As the business prospers and grows, Meera steadily expands the number of fringe benefits such as the work-site lecture series and the scholarships for girls that are specifically designed to help women producers break the cycle of ignorance and prejudice.
ACP provides its members with design, technology, marketing, and raw material support to maintain its status as a competitive, high-margin business. To be able to grow substantially and to maintain its margins, especially in the face of growing product emulation in the domestic market, ACP is trying to move vigorously into the international market. The timing is favorable, since there is rapidly growing demand for quality Nepalese craft products.
After graduating, Meera immediately began working for the advancement of women. She was an early member of the Nepal Women's Organization and, seventeen years ago, began working in women's skill development.