26 March 2020. It will come as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic is severely affecting the global carpet industry and weaving communities. The coronavirus has arrived in all major production countries and has largely brought the industry to a halt.
Label STEP, the fair trade non-profit organisation committed to the wellbeing of weavers and workers in the handmade carpet industry, has adapted its activities to the global crisis. In order to protect our staff, the weavers and the workers, Label STEP has temporarily halted most of its field activities until further notice. Luckily, this does not mean that we cannot reach out to industry stakeholders and weavers. In spite of complex supply chains, a vast majority of weavers having only oral contracts, and most producers not keeping even simple employee records, STEP has developed a comprehensive database including contact details of thousands of weavers and other industry stakeholders. These channels of communication are used today to keep in touch and pass on vital information.
In Nepal the government has gradually increased lockdown measures. In the meantime almost all business and industries have come to a halt. In a few workshops where weavers are also living on the compound some weavers are continuing work until the remaining yarn is used up. Most weavers and workers come from rural areas to work in Kathmandu’s carpet industry. Many of them have now left the capital and returned to their home villages – with the risk of spreading the virus to remote parts of the country. Weavers leaving the workshops, because of a natural disaster like the 2015 earthquake, or for the annual holiday season, are always disruptive for the industry because the workshop owners never know how many of their weavers will return. One path for the future of Nepal’s carpet industry might be alternative locations for production: Label STEP and a few industry partners are working on a UK-funded pilot project to set up Artisan Villages in rural areas.
The entire country is under a 21-day shutdown until 14 April. All ‘non-essential’ services and industries, including carpet production, have closed down. Close to 1,000 weavers can be reached through direct contacts and through a network of dozens of workshop owners, contractors and sub-contractors. STEP is distributing ‘official material’ (from WHO and governmental sources) and has also produced a short video interview with medical doctors from Bhadohi Hospital.
As everywhere, the coronavirus is spreading in Pakistan. While some of the country’s home-based weavers will continue to work for the time being, the rest of the industry cannot. The seven export companies we are working with are following the authorities’ orders and have shut down their offices and central facilities. The closing of the border to Afghanistan is a contributing factor – the large washing and finishing facilities in Pakistan depend up to 90% on Afghan rugs. Label STEP has paused its audit activities, but is still able to reach out and keep in touch with weavers through its network of autonomous, village-level weaver groups, founded, supported and trained by Label STEP.
Most regions in Afghanistan have reported infections, with particular concern for Herat, the western city close to Iran. While home-based weaving will continue, centralised weaving workshops have closed. As in Iran, business was closed for Nowruz, the Persian New Year holiday, anyway. Both countries saw large gatherings for the traditional New Year’s celebrations. Unfortunately the effects on the spread of the virus will be felt. As in other countries, STEP has stopped its audits and field visits for the time being. Special coronovirus information sessions have been held for weavers. Currently we are using mobile phone and social media contacts to reach around 400 weavers. STEP can also depend on its Weaver Group structure to communicate with more than 500 weavers organised in village levels in groups of around 20 women.
Iran is one of the countries most affected by the pandemic. The situation is dramatic and the country’s public life has come to a standstill. Home-based weavers (the most common form of weaving in the country) can still work but the rest of the supply chain is heavily affected. Through direct contacts and good relationships with many of the country’s leading manufacturers and especially their regional agents, STEP has the potential to reach out to up to 2,000 weavers – using communication channels to spread important information and advice about the current global health crisis.
The pandemic’s impact on the world economy is still unknown. But it is obvious it will be serious. And there’s no doubt that the carpet industry will suffer, too. The crisis will most probably have a dramatic impact on the livelihood of the most vulnerable in the handmade carpet value chain – the weavers. As carpet weavers are paid in piece rates (per square metre or foot of woven carpet), they lose their income the minute they have no orders on the loom.
Knowing that everybody is in a difficult situation, Label STEP still calls on the carpet industry to focus their solidarity on the weavers and other artisans.
- Workshop owners, contractors and exporters are requested to honour their commitments and pay weavers on time and according to the agreed terms. Label STEP auditors will systematically verify this.
- Retailers, wholesalers and all international buyers are also asked to honour their commitments regarding ongoing orders and demonstrate understanding and generosity if not all deadlines can be met.
- Consumers are called upon to continue supporting artisans, weavers and their families by buying handmade carpets.Label STEP will continue to monitor developments and evaluate potential interventions and long-term support projects. We will stand by the handmade carpet industry and particularly its weavers during this crisis, but we will also need all the help we can get.
Thank you, and stay safe.
Reto Aschwanden, Managing Director