In the Indian city of Varanasi, it takes Moinuddin nearly 15 days of difficult labor to weave nine yards (eight meters) of the shimmering multi-hued silk popular with Asian and Western women who wrap themselves in elegant saris.
The silken saris woven in this ancient Hindu holy city 600 kilometers (373 miles) southeast of New Delhi are especially prized for their workmanship. Each piece can cost from $150 to $1,500, depending on the fineness, tightness of the weave, and amount of gold brocade.
But, like the 100,000-odd weavers in Varanasi, Moinuddin considers himself lucky if he manages to earn $30 a month for weaving three of the saris that carry the valued Benarasi name.
"Poor working conditions, including insufficient ventilation and lighting, have damaged our health and reduced our output. Most of us suffer from respiratory illnesses and eye problems," said Moinuddin, who works in a dingy sweatshop that overlooks picturesque bathing jetties on the sacred Ganges River.
Weavers fall into three categories: individual weavers, master weavers, and members of cooperatives. While all of them are exploited to some degree, individual weavers who work on their own looms and use their own dyes and designs suffer the most.
Flouting Labor Laws
When a sari is completed, the individual weaver considers his work only half done for he must sell his product to the hard-bargaining gaddidar, or trader, who often doubles as a money lender. Consequently, the impoverished and indebted weavers end up in debt to traders.
Master weavers are better off since they do little of their own work. They suggest designs and colors, and farm out work to daily wage earners such as Moinuddin. But Moinuddin says wages are paid only at a piecemeal rate, per sari, and are therefore in violation of local labor laws.
K.P. Verma, the assistant director of Handloom Textiles in Varanasi, concedes that the ancient trade is now threatened by exploitation of the weavers at the hands of master weavers and traders. "This is because most of the industry is unorganized and weavers are exploited in the name of color, quality, and design," he said.
But weavers who join cooperatives are not better off, although these societies are entitled to government subsidies on raw material and marketing assistance. Less than one fifth of Varanasi's 110,000 weavers are members of the city's 462 cooperatives.
"Cooperative societies just hold meetings and do nothing concrete for the welfare of weavers," said Gaavesh Sarvar, a local weaver and cooperative member. "Nothing comes out of the meetings. Our condition is no better than that of individual weavers and we too suffer from improper facilities."
Long hours at the loom have damaged Sarvar's health. He complains of swelling in his legs during the cold winters and worries that he has no health insurance. "We often fall sick for days, and these are times when we cannot earn any money but have to borrow to pay the costs of medical treatment," he said.
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