With roots in the child labor movement, Solomon J.P. is taking a systemic, industry-based approach to poverty in India, addressing livelihood issues while increasing structure and regulation in low wage jobs.
The New Idea
Solomon’s initiatives respond to two elements of the challenges facing the working poor: the struggle to sustain their own enterprises and the need for support in regulating and organizing daily wage labor opportunities. Solomon’s key innovation is his learning-focused approach which enables low-wage laborers and producers to expand their opportunities by accessing new clients and markets within and outside the community. This learning cannot happen in training sessions alone, so Solomon incorporates it into the fundamental fabric of the business environment. Unique among development programs targeted at the working poor, group learning centered on the learner and supported by a facilitator allows participants to draw on each other’s skills. These programs’ structure and facilitation are essential for the sustainability and ongoing competitiveness of the enterprise. This enables “learners” to drive the learning process themselves and take control over their own decisions. The facilitator, together with the learners, define learning outcomes that meet individual and collective learning needs, leading to overall empowerment. Solomon’s approach to poverty alleviation rests on two distinct models which capitalize on market needs and are based on principles of collectivity and organization. MAYA Organic is a network of collective enterprises run by the working poor, which produce competitive, market quality products. It demonstrates that not only can the working poor manage their own enterprises, but by enterprises mutually supporting each other, each business can engage and compete with mainstream markets, negotiating and reaping profits in a way which also benefits the group. Since 2004, MAYA Organic has been active in three sectors: lac-ware, garments, and wood and metal fabrication. More than 400 members work in 20 group enterprises and, through continuous hands-on learning, have reached a level where they independently plan, procure and execute product orders, maintain systems and follow and understand quality processes. The collectives are linked to an umbrella marketing and design organization where the product is sold under the common brand of MAYA Organic, which helps ensure sustainability of the enterprise. Solomon’s second intervention is LaborNet. This is a new program that aims to develop the skill and improve the services to unskilled or informal workers. By systematizing how contractors find employees, Solomon transforms each worker from an anonymous set of hands to a person who can develop different skills I a variety of settings, and therefore become more employable. It also creates an opportunity to work with employers on occupational health and safety, and provides workers access to social services. LabourNet is a workforce development solution, set up as an information exchange platform, which provides information on labor opportunities and facilitates labor transactions between casual workers, contractors, builders, construction companies, the government and project management consultants. This network also works with corporations, citizen organizations and the government towards better safety, management and efficiency in the labor force. This establishes better work systems at job sites, encourages skill development, facilitates access to social security systems, impacts the industry as a whole and influences policy.
Most efforts to help the poor earn more money involve developing small enterprises. The idea is to train entrepreneurs, teach them how to do business, develop new products and establish fair marketing platforms. However, most experiments have failed—why? Competition is intense, and the would-be entrepreneurs can barely cover their costs; they find it difficult to survive. The individual who tries to run a small shop or trading business is more likely to encounter people who are hostile to the idea of his success than people who want to see him prosper. A recent Planning Commission report revealed that of the 350 billion Rupees spent on poverty alleviation in a year, only 7 percent actually reached the poor.Over the last two decades, the dominant model promoted in the development debate has been that of private enterprise. However, the market realities today make it nearly impossible for individuals to become successful entrepreneurs. There has been little distribution of income or sharing of skills; entrepreneurs make barely enough to keep going and businesses fold under intense competition. There are no opportunities to invest in technology or training and consulting is not available at the micro-enterprise level. The product reputation that emerges is one of poor quality and the sense that buyers aren’t actually consumers, but instead participating in a charitable gesture.Solomon’s organization, MAYA has found that individuals begin to perceive their situation as an isolated rather than a collective structural problem. Furthermore, social protections are limited. This affects household spending patterns, the functioning of community life and ultimately children’s school attendance. Many families remain in the vicious cycle of indebtedness; a system that is oppressive and discriminatory. “Working poor” status may slip into destitution and the challenge becomes one of social sustainability. Lacking a stable and skilled workforce severely impacts the ability to adhere to global standards; this applies to internationally certified Indian companies through such mechanisms as the International Organization for Standardization.
Solomon does not focus on individually-run enterprises, but draws on the strength that poor people often have—a culture of collective labor and cooperation. His initiative, MAYA Organics, incubates group enterprises in three sectors: garments, lac-ware and metal and wood manufacturing. As a network, the members take advantage of each others’ skill and share costs and risks in the market.To date, 19 of 20 MAYA Organic collectives have now invested in their enterprises and 15 are in the process of developing business plans to run their own units. Business turnover in March 2006 was expected to touch US$450,000. The plan is for these groups to soon move out of MAYA Organic’s incubation premises and set up their own manufacturing and marketing infrastructure.
Maya Organic Support Services (MOSS) is a professionally-run marketing and design unit, which operates as an independent company and acts as a service unit to the SDUs and ensures market access, feedback and professionalism–the protective measures required for effective functioning of the collectives. With MOSS’s assistance, MAYA Organic is capitalizing on the new popularity of socially responsible brands in the consumer market. Currently, MAYA Organic products sell in more than 60 mainstream outlets all over India, with exclusive showrooms in Chennai and Bangalore, along with dealer and distribution networks. Distributors have been appointed in the United Kingdom, Australia and central Europe and market linkages have been established in the United States through the League of Artisans. The end result is a strong brand identity that represents not only quality and well-designed products and services, but also values fair practice and bottom-up social compliance, an equal distribution of profits, decent working conditions, worker ownership and empowerment.To spread the impact of this work and to facilitate documentation, Solomon is organizing a Livelihood Resource Center. Apart from engaging the government and municipal corporations to develop a unified strategy to address poverty, the resource center will train and support citizen sector organizations, cooperatives, trade unions and microfinance institutions to develop institutional structures. Additionally, in response to a growing demand, Solomon is introducing adult literacy programs into the collectives.To address the working poor who are laborers, not producers, LabourNet is designed to connect wage workers to the market, in a system that that will ensure social benefit and the creation and evolution of a skilled workforce. The end goals are to facilitate stability in the informal sector, improve product quality, create shorter project cycles and decrease costs in the marketplace. LabourNet creates this critical infrastructure by encouraging local workers and migrant groups to register with the network and established a database of workers’ personal history, experience and skill sets. Currently, there are more than 300 registered groups, comprised of builders, contractors and individual customers in Bangalore, that access this information on nearly 3,000 workers. Phone helplines have been put in place to enable exchange of information, in addition to an online version of the database. When a call or request is received, it is assessed and matched with a labor group coordinator who, in turn, gathers a group of appropriately skilled workers. On-site monitoring is done to ensure that the terms of the clients are implemented; benefiting both parties.Solomon realizes that to change rural development programs, he must work through the vast microfinance sector. If he can successfully introduce group entrepreneurship through the thousands of microfinance institutions across India, then there would be real, tangible changes in rural economies. An important peace of this idea is also to create stronger linkages between rural producers and rural consumers. While spreading his model to other sectors, Solomon is also scaling up the original MAYA Organics model through partnerships with private sector entities and venture capitalists. Corporate partners help provide workforce training and development to the workers. Such collaboration with builders, customers and contractors brings about better work practices such as audit systems, training and implementation of decent and safe working conditions, adding business value to a company. As a further result, construction firms are beginning to develop better norms and conditions for workers on their project sites. To complement this increase in workplace quality, LabourNet is introducing systems of training and assessment to certify registered workers. LabourNet is also setting up an equipment bank where workers can hire or buy safety equipment and tools, and registered workers are provided with a mechanism to receive accident and health insurance benefits. These program initiatives allow workers to operate more independently within the labor system as well as increasing professionalism and the assets they bring to employment.LabourNet has generated 3,715 days of work since January 2005. Around 180 construction firms and corporations have accessed workers through LabourNet. 65 projects have been executed through registered labor coordinators, generating business worth more than US$34,000 in labor costs. LabourNet is in the initial phase of its work and is looking to expand to cover all the 400,000 construction workers in Bangalore city and then move on to other sectors, such as domestic work, city maintenance, and other informal sector labor.
Solomon grew up in India and has an engineering background. He started working in the heavy engineering and electro-chemical processing industries and later worked in Europe for an international youth exchange organization based in Berlin, with assignments in Latin America and Asia. In 1989 Solomon founded MAYA, with a focus on children’s rights and the eradication of child labor, operating out of Bangalore and southern India. MAYA is working with the state government of Karnataka to recruit parents and villages to take ownership of public schools. In 1992 he developed a youth-at-risk training workshop for those living on the streets of Bangalore, a program adopted later by many other organizations. In 1996 Solomon created a common platform (ACLAC and CACL) for numerous children’s rights groups to come together and campaign against child labor. In 2001, Maya launched and developed an education reform program in the state of Karnataka called Prajayatna, which now operates in more than 25,000 schools across Karnataka and now in Andhra Pradesh.From his work in education reform in Karnataka, Solomon realized that even though parents wanted to send their children to school, they were often compelled to send them to work. By examining and tackling the systemic causes of poverty through a solutions-oriented approach, he was able to expand his focus from children to the community at large and try and address the root causes of the cycle of poverty. In 2003 Solomon launched MAYA Organic.