Since its founding in 1995, STEP has worked to expand the reach of its fair trade mandate. Today, STEP proudly works across all 7 major handmade rug producing countries—including Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Morocco—and has local teams dedicated to addressing the unique challenges, languages, and working conditions of each region. The global network that has arisen from this work not only comprises a significant number of direct STEP employees but also countless skilled weavers and numerous licence holders.
Annual International Meetings: Bridging Challenges
Each year, STEP diligently organises internal meetings among its operational countries. Annual international gatherings play an instrumental role in fortifying STEP’s mission. They offer a unique platform for the global team to partake in field visits, exchange country reports, and dive into the distinct intricacies of each country’s carpet weaving industry.
Orchestrating such meetings can be daunting due to travel restrictions and evolving political dynamics in these regions; yet, despite these challenges, STEP remains unwavering in its commitment to prioritising and planning these critical meetings when opportunities arise.
In 2023, country meetings took place in Pakistan in August and in India in October. During this second meeting, the Nepal team, accompanied by members of the European team, travelled to Varanasi to meet the India team. Below we’ll share experiences of the exchange between the Nepal and India teams as documented by members of STEP’s Communications staff from the Nepal and Europe Offices.
The Richness of Exchange: Experiencing Varanasi
Varanasi is a city of profound spiritual significance for both Hindus and Buddhists that holds historical and cultural importance because of its association with sacred rituals and the holy Ganges River. The unique blend of spirituality and diverse culture makes it an ideal setting for this annual exchange. Varanasi is famous for its artisanal silk weaving, and it is located in close proximity to traditional carpet-making regions like Bhadohi, Mirzapur, and other parts of Uttar Pradesh, which are renowned for their thriving carpet industry.
Similarities and Differences: A Learning Opportunity
This year’s meeting in Varanasi and the surrounding areas emphasised the importance of regular updates and mutual learning between STEP’s country offices. The field visits offered insight into the contrasting dynamics between Nepal and India, two neighboring countries with unique weaving industries.
Nepal is renowned for its carpets made from natural materials like wool and silk, but also vegetable fibres like nettle, hemp, and jute, all woven using the Tibetan knot-technique .
India, on the other hand, boasts a wider array of weaving techniques, styles, and materials, including hand-knotted carpets, Dhurries, Kilims, Hand-tufted and handloom carpets. In India, weavers also use horizontal looms (Daari Weaving) and handlooms, employing different tools compared to Tibetan hand-knotted carpets. In the regions of Bhadohi and Mirzapur, the dominant knotting styles include the symmetrical knot and the Persian knot.
Accommodation stood out as a primary similarity between the two countries. In both Nepal and India, a majority of internal migrant weavers live within workshop premises in shared living facilities.
In both India and Nepal, STEP facilitates initiatives that positively impact the health and well-being of weavers.
In India, the local teams provide weavers with access to health monitoring camps and self-learning physiotherapy guidance, which have positively impacted their health and well-being.
In Nepal, health initiatives, including efforts to provide better lighting in workshops and more ergonomic looms to enhance posture, have contributed to the overall welfare of weavers.
The auditors from both countries took the opportunity to visit weaving and dyeing facilities in the Bhadohi region to explore the differences and similarities in their respective practices. Notably, many Indian yarn dyeing facilities have implemented environmentally friendly solutions for wastewater management, including Effluent Treatment Plants (ETPs). ETPs are often used to treat the water used in the dyeing process, ensuring that harmful chemicals are removed, and only clean water is discharged. As a result, the local auditors in India have managed to enhance their compliance measures by incorporating regular water quality testing as a standard audit criterion.
When it comes to labor, India and Nepal share a common challenge: a shortage of skilled weavers. Addressing this issue is paramount for the industry’s growth. To overcome these challenges, STEP is a driving force in making the carpet manufacturing sector more attractive to potential workers across both countries. This involves improving wages, working conditions, and providing social security measures.
In Nepal, STEP is addressing the weaver shortage through the UK aid-funded Artisan Villages project in the Sarlahi region. This project establishes decentralized networks for carpet production, offering stable job opportunities to artisans. These opportunities encompass various stages of carpet production, such as dyeing, spinning, and carding. This initiative is an exemplary effort that not only addresses the weaver shortage but also promotes inclusivity by empowering individuals with disabilities and those from different rural areas.
In Nepal, gender equality in the workforce is evident, with men and women working side by side in workshops, fostering an inclusive environment and equitable opportunities for both genders.
This stands in contrast to India, where most workshops primarily employ men. The gender disparity in India’s weaving industry is rooted in historical traditions and deeply ingrained cultural norms. Economic factors further reinforce this pattern as men have more opportunities for higher-paying jobs outside the home, making it a complex issue with societal and cultural influences.
Recognizing the need for change, STEP is in the process of developing initiatives to make weaving workshops in India more attractive and accessible to women. Implementing strategies, such as offering part-time positions and enabling work close to home, including in rural areas.
Embracing regular updates and mutual learning:
STEP’s commitment to regular updates and mutual learning among its country offices is instrumental in achieving its core success. While Label STEP maintains universal standards and compliances, each country office faces unique challenges, adopts distinct approaches to STEP’s work, and develops its own documentation styles, visual identity, and language.
STEP aims to expand these collaborative endeavors further, transcending the boundaries of government structures and fostering a culture of knowledge-sharing and idea exchange between the different STEP country offices. By maintaining a dedication to strengthening its mission and expanding its presence in the world of weaver empowerment, STEP ultimately benefits artisans and communities worldwide.
Stay Updated: Discover the Team Behind STEP
At STEP, we believe in showcasing the dedication and hard work of our team, as they are the driving force behind our initiatives.
Soon, we will be introducing a “Behind the Scenes” news post that delves into the work of a STEP auditor, offering a glimpse of the individuals contributing to STEP’s mission.
All photos by Jana Hesse.