Chimaltenango, Guatemala, February, 2007 - I saw the ad on Idealist. Com - Mission Guatemala was looking for a volunteer for a month to teach Spanish to the small staff of Guatemalans working for their non-profit organization. The main office was in Chimaltenango, a city the guide books suggest you spend little time in. Others I spoke to however, found the place intriguing and authentic with an almost two-thirds indigenous population and a huge week-long market. It had been almost 40 years since last I’d been to Guatemala and I was eager to go again. Kay Sweeney, the director and founder of Mission Guatemala, called me at the end of December of ’06, a month before I was ready to go, and asked if, instead of teaching, I’d be interested in helping them do a trial-run of the Fair Wage Guide.
Picture Note: Aura Sanchez observes a woman embroiderer from Santa Clara la Laguna t0 calculate in the process of determining a "fair wage" for her work
Mission Guatemala, a member of the Fair Trade Federation, was very interested in getting a better handle on whether the handful of artisans from which it was buying, were receiving a fair wage. Given that many of the crafts were either weavings or ceramics, I eagerly agreed. I had lived in Peru years ago and had become fascinated by Quechuan weavings and pottery. I had even done some weaving and pottery myself. How exciting to spend time venturing into little villages in the altiplano of Guatemala and observing the production of these exquisite crafts. I would be working with a staff member of Mission Guatemala, Juana Ixmata, and together we would assess as many artisans as we could realistically do in the span of four weeks.
During this period we succeeded in observing five artisans in the towns of San Juan Comalapa, Chimaltenango and Santa Clara La Laguna, Sololá. We were amazed at how eager the artisans were to have us observe them; how diligent and serious they were about their crafts. In addition to observing and timing the various tasks, we also took photos of, and recorded discussions about the work. Before starting our work, we carefully explained the theory behind the use of the Fair Wage Guide and the reasons we were interested in trying it out. We explained that both the buyer and the vendor stood to benefit from an accurate assessment of an hourly wage. We also recommended that, if they had access to the internet, they take a look at the Fair Wage Guide and incorporate it into their own business practice. Finally, we asked them how long, they surmised, it took to make the item. Invariably, they told us the time almost to the hour. This is especially notable given that the work is often interrupted by having to prepare lunch, pick up a child at school, work in the corn fields, or other chores.
Because we were intent on observing more than one artisan make the same product, in order to get an average time assessment, three of our observations were of back-strap weavers making small four by six inch brocaded woven bags. The first two were identical in design and took approximately the same time to make, an average of 16 hours. After inputting our data on the Fair Wage Guide website, we learned that we were slightly underpaying for these bags. Anxious to more closely approximate at least the national minimum wage, we discussed what options were available for raising the artisans’ wages. We knew that we could not sell the bags for more than what we were getting. So we decided to have a similar bag woven with a more simplified pattern. This worked well. With the more simplified pattern we were able to cut the weaving process to almost half. We were excited about the possibilities that the Wage Guide afforded. The back-strap weavers were all women, as is the tradition in Guatemala. The ones we observed were living in San Juan Comalapa, a town in the department of Chimaltenango. Our first weaver, Rosario Catu de Tzaj, met us at the bus stop and took us to her house where we sat in her courtyard and observed her weave. We broke for lunch. She offered us a very tasty vegetable soup with tortillas. After that we resumed our observations into the hot afternoon. Not in the habit of weaving during the afternoon hours, Rosario asked her husband to put up a blanket so as to keep the sun from beating down on her as she continued her weaving. Finally, with the completion of one bag, we were able to call an end to the day’s observation. We thanked her for her time, hospitality and generosity. Rosario accompanied us back to the center of town to catch our bus.
In Comalapa, a town known for its artists, there is a long progression of murals on the wall of the cemetery. The murals depict the early Mayas, the Spanish conquest, the Mayan descendents and their rituals and customs, and the recent, very brutal 36 year war. It was clear from talking with Rosario that there are few indigenous families that were not personally and tragically affected by the government massacres during the war. Her own father and brother’s names, she told me, her eyes brimming with tears, are etched in stone on a memorial at the entrance to the town, where those who were disappeared, are remembered. While our goal was to observe every step in the process, we also knew that we would have to make some estimates when tasks were repeated, or were of a similar nature to another task. We were also aware of the fact that a weaver will lay warp for several items at a time. This required that we divide the observed or calculated times by the number of items that would result from one warp. This became especially necessary during our fourth observation, when we were observing a treadle loom weaver. Although we spent three days observing the process, we actually observed only portions of a number of specific tasks. For instance, the spinning of one spool of weft or warp was multiplied by the number of spools necessary for the entire process and then divided by the number of items the process yielded. (Camilo Catu Cutzal, the weaver, had three weaving productions going on. We were thus, able to observe all of the required tasks but not in their entirety.) After in-putting our data we were happy to learn that our payments were well above all the indictors on the Fair Wage Guide website. Our last observation was in the small village of Santa Clara la Laguna, high above the majestic Lake Atitlán. Santa Clara is known for its embroidery. A large group of women had gotten together to embroider tee shirts for Mission Guatemala to sell in the US. Over the course of two days we observed a representative group of four women replicate the same embroidery pattern. The women mainly spoke Quiché. Juana, my colleague, also spoke Quiché , so communication was not a problem. Their estimate that the embroidery would take about two full days, or sixteen hours, was right on target. The women worked diligently with heads bowed over their work, never stopping to rest their skillful fingers. Despite their undivided attention to the work, they talked and laughed a lot.
Kids came in and out of the small living room we were gathered in; older kids taking care of the little ones. At one point the baby of one of the woman began to cry. She gathered her up, put the baby on her back and continued to embroider. We built in breaks for them to attend to children, cooking and other household chores. They were very grateful to us for coming out and observing their work. They told us that ordinarily, this kind of work was done between other pressing chores including the planting and harvesting of maize on plots of land on the hillsides. After finishing our observations in Santa Clara, we learned that the wages we were paying them were sorely below the Guatemalan minimum wage. As a follow up to the observation, Juana Ixmata met with the women and explained the problem. They then simplified the pattern of embroidery to cut their work time to one eight hour day.February and my month-long commitment to Mission Guatemala was fast coming to an end. There were a number of other artisans that had to be observed. Juana and I had both learned a lot during the short trial period. I was confident that she could continue these efforts and contribute to Mission Guatemala’s goal, to raise the standard of living for at least, this little part of the global world.