Costing Considerations 2: What’s a Fair Wage?

Sarbato Devi spins on her charkha.

One of my goals during my last trip to Himachal was to better understand the economics of wool production in the region. I suspected that just as locals tend to describe herding as an occupation that people do only if they can’t do anything else, the going rates for wool products would undervalue the skilled labor of creating them (women’s work in particular). When I sat with Sarbato Devi, the local rate for spinning in the area where she lives was 500 rupees per kg of finished yarn.* Whenever I ask spinners how long it takes to spin enough for a blanket, they inevitably just tell me that it takes a long time. Getting precise time samples is difficult as spinners don’t usually sit and spin for an extended amount of time, instead spinning for a few minutes here and there as they complete other household tasks. Sitting with Sarbato Devi as she spun, timing her and weighing her cones of yarn as she removed them from the charkha, I calculated that she would be able to spin roughly ½ kg per day if she were sitting and working at it like a 9-5 job. So the going rate is consistent with the local minimum wage for unskilled labor at the time, 250 rupees/day.

Spinning is not unskilled labor. It is repetitive, true, and seems pretty simple when you just watch somebody. But it takes considerable experience to learn how to hold the fiber so that it drafts out smoothly, how to tell when enough twist has built up in the yarn, and how to transition from rotating the charkha clockwise to winding on the yarn counter-clockwise and back to clockwise again without interrupting the flow. I’m a pretty competent spinner on a treadle wheel, drop spindle, and even on the Kullvi-style takli, but an absolute disaster when I sit down at a charkha like Sarbato Devi’s. It’s important to me that the spinners I meet know that I truly value their skills.

And since we live in capitalism, one of the ways that we communicate value is through money. Although I started taking time samples with Sarbato Devi as part of an attempt to calculate a local living wage,** I quickly realized that covering the costs of living would not be nearly enough. The households in which folks are still involved in herding and wool production are largely self-sufficient, and although my calculations are incomplete, it seems that the minimum wage floor is not actually that far below what a farming and herding household needs. But the rates at which various stages of wool processing are compensated devalue the skills involved by placing them at the lowest, unskilled, level of the wage ladder. Even many jobs that equate to other domestic work typically performed by women (tea maker, cook, laundry washer) are classed as “semi-skilled” and paid at a higher rate. So one of my goals in developing our unique supply chain is to set prices that honor the skill that goes into even basic tasks like washing, let alone spinning, wool.

This is still a work in progress. I haven’t yet been able to conduct time sampling for all stages of processing, and the going rates will continue to change as well. But more importantly, offering a higher rate doesn’t in itself communicate that I value the work – all it does is confirm that foreigners have no common sense and throw their money away. When I try to pay someone above the going rate, it usually causes an uproar among everyone else who thinks I’m being swindled. So there’s a lot of work ahead in finding a balance between what seems ethical from my/the end customer’s side, and what makes sense within the local context.

*As of this writing, it’s been a little over a year since I was gathering all this financial info, and rates have of course changed—when I just looked up official labor rates it seems that they’ve gone up a little, and it’s possible that rates for things like spinning have to. And they’ll likely change again by the time I’m able to return.

**A story for another blog post…

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