Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fair-Trade Craft Sales and Tours in Thailand

colored baskets among sale items at Thai fair
At ThaiCraft Association's monthly sales, a large range of crafts are on sale at fair-trade prices.

Are you in looking for hand-made in Thailand handbags, stuffed toys, woven baskets, wooden picture frames or silver jewelry? How about tableware, lamps, bed linen, souvenirs and holiday ornaments?  Bangkokians skip the shops, street stalls and wandering vendors--and bargaining. Instead, they go to the monthly fair-trade craft show. Bonus: handicraft quality is good and the artisans themselves set prices and earn most of the profits. You can meet the makers as well. 
The fair is usually held at least one Saturday per month the fifth floor of the main building at the Church of Christ/Student Christian Centre compound in Ratchathewi.  The basement of Jasmine City Building on  the corner of Sukhumvit Road and Sukhumvit Soi 23 (aka Soi Prasanmit) is another common site. It's walking distance from Asoke Skytrain station (take Exit 3)  and the Sukhumvit MRT (subway) station (take Exit 2).

The upcoming sale schedule and a fine map are on this page of the ThaiCraft Association's website. (Once again, ignore the goofy Google map.)

Around Christmastime, there are a few extra fairs and they might be held at different locations, such as the BITEC convention center,  Bumrungrad Hospital and international schools. The Church of Christ location is convenient to the Skytrain stations at Ratchathewi, Stadium and Siam Square as well as many hotels (see below) and Jim Thompson's House. 

Quality of Exports at Thai Prices

Thai craftswoman at work
ThaiCraft represents over 60 groups of craftsmen and women. Altogether, they comprise between 3,000 and 4,000 rural folk from all over the country. Members of a single craft group often live in the same community. Others belong to the same hill tribe or another ethnic minority in a larger area.

For example, women in the village of Ban Chang, east of Bangkok, apply their skills in batik and silk weaving to make sheets and pillow cases. Smiths in Aranyik, a village in the central plains, make high-grade stainless steel dining utensils. Hundreds of years ago, they supplied weapons to the Siamese court. On any given fair day, members of about fifty groups will be on hand with their wares and there will be some crafts by fair-trade makers from other countries, such as Ghana. There is fair-trade coffee too.

Quality is export standard—yet a product typically sells for four to five times less than it would in a store in North America or Europe. A pair of dangling silver earrings made by the Karen or Mien tribal people of northern Thailand costs about US $5. A large two-piece woven bamboo box that could store a mass of desk clutter is about $10.

Handmade mortar on sale at Thai craft fair

Workplace Safety, Green Practices

ThaiCraft started off as an all-volunteer association in 1992. Although it still relies on volunteers, today it’s a bona fide company, ThaiCraft FairTrade, with 14 staff. All are Thai, except for manager Stephen Salmon, who was one of the original volunteers. Its aim remains the same: to assist craft groups in marketing, learning about buyers’ tastes, and making products sustainably. “We have to make sure there are good, safe working conditions and that the environment is taken care of,” Salmon says.

Members of each group decide for themselves what is a fair price and thus an adequate daily wage. That might be only a few US dollars per day. By way of comparison, Thai factory workers in the Bangkok area, where the cost of living is much higher than in rural provinces, now earn 300 baht (about $10) daily.  But construction workers and migrant laborers are lucky to earn $5 a day. Unlike coffee and some other commodities, there is not yet any fair trade label for crafts, although ThaiCraft and other members of the World Fair Trade Association are working on it. 

Tours of Craft Villages

Until a few years ago, about half of ThaiCraft's products were exported. But Salmon says that percentage is steadily declining. There’s no mystery why: Thailand is a relatively rich Asian country and workers in India, China and Cambodia can make crafts for much less. In overseas shops, Thai-made crafts can’t compete.  Here's the page with contact information for importers.

One solution may be to open a shop in Thailand or to shift to goods that appeal to more Thai customers, Salmon says. Domestic customers are predominantly expatriates. 

A sister social enterprise, Phu Phiang, is a fair-trade tour company that benefits workers in another way. It arranges "craft and culture" tours, from a few days up to two weeks, in which small groups visit artisans at work in their home villages. You can see more on the "About ThaiCraft" page of the ThaiCraft site, Phu Phiang's own site or call 02 676 0636, Ext 222 for an English speaker. Recently ThaiCraft has been offering small, brief tours with set dates. You have probably heard countless guarantees of "authentic vilages" but the ThaiCraft people have been working with these villagers for years and years, so you can be sure that you won't feel that you're gawking and that the villagers actually benefit. 

Event: ThaiCraft fair
Phone:  (66) 02 676-0636-8, ext. 230 
Dates: One Saturday each month, 10 am to about 3 pm.
Usual location: 5F, Church of Christ Thailand (CCT) headquarters building,  328 Phayathai Road, Ratchathewi district
Nearest Skytrain: Ratchathewi, Stadium and Siam Square stations.
Nearest hotels: Evergreen Place, Vie, Bangkok City Hotel, Holiday Inn Express Siam, Hua Chang Heritage Hotel, Wendy House, Reno, Siam by Design, Novotel Siam Square and (sleazy, dangerous not recommended) Asia Hotel.

Copyright +Susan Cunningham. No republication without permission. Images by ThaiCraft. Contact SoutheastAsiaTraveler @ gmail.com

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