Ask Agung Alit, co-founder of Mitra Bali, an artisan partner in Indonesia, to roll up his sleeve and you’ll discover an eye-catching tattoo.
The words “fair trade” scroll up his forearm.
The permanent marking is just one indication of how committed and passionate Agung and his wife Hani are about empowering handicraft producers in the area and supporting them by giving work opportunities based on respect and trust.
“Fair trade is a good way to support the artisans and the planet. That’s what we believe very much,” he told us while visiting Ten Thousand Villages in Canada last month and taking some time out between sessions during our annual conference.
The working poor
Agung and Hani launched Mitra Bali back in 1993 after Agung, who was a tour guide at the time, noticed that many of the hardworking handicraft makers he was introducing to tourists were barely making ends meet. This, despite doing a booming business at bustling local craft and souvenir markets for tourists visiting Bali from around the world.
“The main problem in Bali with the handicraft sector is payment – unfair payment,” he explained.
In other words, while from the outside Bali may seem like an idyllic paradise where purchasing kites, baskets or jewellery directly from the artisans makes tourists feel they are supporting the local economy, that’s rarely the case. Instead, the majority of the money goes to wealthy middlemen who place the orders or rent the market stalls. Makers often receive no deposit and usually wait four to six months to be paid – if they’re compensated at all. It’s precarious work.
But Mitra Bali? As a fair trade organization, the 250 makers receive a 50 per cent deposit when they accept an order and receive the balance within about a week after the pieces are complete. And if the makers are concerned they’ll be unable to finish the order on time, Agung, Hani and the Mitra Bali employees have been known to pitch in and help out.
“To us at Mitra Bali, payment is not a matter of giving money. This is empathy and solidarity. That’s why we do it,” said Agung.
True to their beliefs
Hani, who met Agung when they were both in law school, and who uses her decades of corporate experience to run the business side of the operation, agreed that supporting makers to help create a more fair and equitable Balinese society is at the very heart of their mission.
“We are not big. We are not rich. We want to protect the artisans,” she explained.
That commitment is all the more impressive in light of how many multinational corporations have approached her to talk about supplying their stores. Hani says she’s more interested in staying true to her beliefs and abiding fair trade principles, such as ensuring all makers are old enough to work. (Mitra Bali checks maker identification cards to be sure it doesn’t unwittingly support child labour.)
Now nearly 25 years in, Mitra Bali can point to a myriad of success stories, from the maker who earned enough money to buy land and farm full-time to the countless others who earned enough to educate their children, update their temples and even buy cars, making transportation and day-to-day life much easier. The couple also all but adopted two village children who went on to graduate school, speak English and still live nearby.
Surviving and thriving after terror
These stories are even more astounding, considering that Agung’s own personal one is rife with hardship and tragedy. His father and six uncles were all executed during the 1965-66 Indonesian mass killings during an era of civil unrest that targeted Communist sympathizers and leftists. His mother and step-mother, teachers, also had to flee in order to stay alive.
Although Agung was considered “a son of a communist” and found it difficult to attend school or find work, he focused on finding ways to survive.
“Because I’m wild, I learned guitar. I speak English and that helps me a lot. I learn new things,” he told us.
It was that spirit that caught Hani’s eye at a concert where she was playing keyboard with a well-known Balinese band. (Her family didn’t know she was moonlighting as a musician while in law school!)
“And then I saw him dancing like crazy,” she said, laughing. “I was curious. Who is this guy?”
Decades later, Hani and Agung who now have two adult children, are still making waves. And now that we’ve met them in person and heard their stories, we’re even more excited to continue our partnership with Mitra Bali. The feeling is mutual.
“Ten Thousand Villages is our role model. We really want to have the stand-up, strong institution with nice things that can make change and support real people,” said Agung. “We can do it together I believe.”