On May 5th, in honor of World Fair Trade Day, Mitos Urgel participated in an interview on encouraging governments, communities and the world to rebuild their economies ethically and sustainably.
Ms. Mitos Urgel is the President and CEO of WEAVE Foundation (Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment) with an enterprise subsidiary Fair Trade Enterprise in Thailand. She is also the President and CEO of the World Fair Trade Organization in Asia, an alliance of over 150 Fair Trade Enterprises in Asia promoting justice in international trade.
Mitos is passionately and actively working to advance the rights, status and dignity of refugees and underprivileged ethnic women and their children on the Thai-Myanmar border via education and economic empowerment interventions through Fair Trade for more than 20 years now.
The interview is as follows:
QUESTION 1: Could you please share with us a bit about your organization?
WEAVE is a refugee-powered organization in Thailand with a subsidiary Fair Trade enterprise. Our work with the marginalized and disadvantaged refugee women was born out of the belief that the refugee women, as survivors of all violence, are potent drivers for change.
We believe that encouraging their leadership and the development of their status benefits their families and communities.
We create enabling spaces for them to access safe and fair employment opportunities, to build their capacities to drive and share power in building strong and resilient communities to practices that are environmentally and socially just, equitable and sustainable.
Amongst the impact of Weave includes;
1. Elevating and improvement in the status and advancement of women
2. They are now in greater control over decision making, especially in how to allocate and utilize their earnings
3.They’re able to generate and work toward the creation of wealth
4. There is a significant improvement in family relationships and change in gender roles and relationships
QUESTION 2: As you operate in Thailand, could you paint us a picture of what the current economic climate is and what it is like to run an enterprise there?
Before the COVID-19 Pandemic, Thailand’s craft sector had evolved in response to the social and economic forces that influence the country’s production structure, ranging from house to industrial levels. The craft industry output is increasing in the diversity of products and is becoming an essential part of the creative industries in Thailand; ⅓ of the total employment in the creative sector is from the craft industry. Perhaps more importantly, Thai handicrafts constitute a signature part of the country’s cultural legacy. Skills and knowledge have been accumulated and passed down through the generation; they’re woven into community life, the arts and the culture.
The situation, of course, has been altered now due to the disruption caused by COVID-19; competition has further increased as the purchasing power of the consumer has now been directly geared towards essential products.
The situation is also directly affecting the domestic sales of WEAVE Fair Trade, even though we only command 30% of the domestic market in Thailand. As we are working in handmade products, we cannot compete with the local economy where production is mass-based with lesser cost than ours. The business climate is competitive and highly challenging; the economy is terrible at the moment, with the tourism industry being extremely affected
QUESTION 3: On the topic of #BuildBackFairer, COVID has impacted communities globally; what has been the impact for the communities you work with, either positive or negative?
COVID-19 has exposed the entrenched inequality in our world today; the disruption further exacerbated the situation. In the context of our communities, the lockdowns (Thailand being on its 4th wave) isolated us from our artisan producers, a significant handicap in continuing their employment. COVID-19 has shaken us to the core; it exposed the vulnerability of a refugee community to a more considerable extent, especially when they were cut off from the outside world to access safe and fair income. On the one hand, as the refugee population has been subjected to isolation, hardship, over-dependency for many decades now, the restriction was not something new to them. One of the positive responses in 2020 by the community of artisans of #weavewomen was their easy adaption of the pivoting of wear into the home-based production of masks. The facial fabric mask is fair trade created through the leadership of WFTO Asia as part of its immediate response to the fight against COVID.
QUESTION 4: What are the critical challenges in the modern supply chain that need addressing using the Fair Trade movement as a vehicle for change?
There’s not doubt that the lack of transparency in the supply chain is among the major challenges, together with increasing waste generated during production, maybe as a result of inadequate planning processes.
Questions like “Who’re the creators of your products?” and “ What and how is it made?” are crucial considerations, especially in looking at how these processes within the whole supply chain contribute to the health and well-being of the poeple, both producer and consumer, and our planet.
QUESTION 5: Your enterprise is a fair trade business; how does this model your work with the communities you work with within Thailand? Why did you decide to become and Fair Trade organization?
Since the establishment of WEAVE, more than two decades ago, we had already differentiated our business approach to one that is pro-people, pro-environment. Early on, we knew our global economy had been failing us, with a widening disparity in wealth, which was in the hands of a limited few, with the poor getting poorer. We thought that having this idea, one of an alternative system must also be thought by like-minded individuals and groups; we know this thought isn’t unique to WEAVE. True enough, in 1997, we found the Fair Trade Federation in the United States and become a member. In 2010, we moved our membership to the World Fair Trade Organisation. Fair Trade became the common bond in our quest to create solutions to inequality, marginalization, refugee livelihoods, women’s empowerment, unsustainable use of natural resources, and less environmentally friendly and unsustainable farming production systems and practices
The Fair Trade business model perfectly aligns with our vision and fits into the context of WEAVE, where it contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to securing the rights of marginalized artisan and farmer producers and the environment.
QUESTION 6: How’re you driving impact to build a groundswell for the fair trade movement in the places you operate? What has been the response from local policymakers? How has your journey been?
Firstly, by creating champions within our ranks – #weavewomen. The fair-trade philosophy, principles and practices must be reflected in our work towards the transformation we need. The #weavewomen refugee artisans projects this changes/transformation in their communities. We also work with strategic leaders and partners as influencers.
we started to gain momentum until we got caught by the covid-19 pandemic and the political upheaval in Burma.
At any rate, we, Weave Fair Trade, gained active supporters from several government line agencies in Thailand, in particular the operations center for a displaced person, of the ministry of interior, in terms of allowing refugee livelihoods in temporary shelters where displaced persons are housed. Fairtrade has been recognized by our institutional partners, including the UN’s agency for refugees, as a significant business model that has the high potential to enable refugee women to regain confidence and increase financial independence to support their families and communities.
QUESTION 7: What are the main challenges facing the communities you work with; in terms of employment, health, education, social and environmental issues, and how is your organization addressing these issues?
There’s a gamut of challenges that refugees are facing; in the areas of survival, protection, participation and access to quality education, health and safety.
The refugee situation in the Thia-Hurma border is protracted, having existed in Thailand for more than three decades. The approximately 100,000 displaced persons in 9 refugee camps face food insecurities, inadequate health and education services, and most especially uncertainty and bleak future as stateless people.
WEAVE’s projects offer a solution to address the priorities within the framework of two developmental goals; women’s economic empowerment and education for empowerment.
QUESTION 8: To build back fair, what do you believe is the best foot forwards? What advice can you give to any other business impacted by the pandemic or any budding entrepreneurs interested in pursuing a fair trade business?
SMEs play a significant role in the economic development of a country and pursuing sustainable growth and employment generation. However, the pandemic and the financial crisis exposed the fragilities of the global supply chains. Micro and small enterprises at the bottom of the pyramid are always hit the hardest. The World Fair Trade Organisation is developing new business models that put people and the planet first; I would like to invite budding entrepreneurs to get in touch with us and join the fair trade movement at www.wfto.com. We need each other’s support to cope with this universal challenge to #BuildBackFairer.