A clerk at Trader Joe’s just asked me if the artisan who made my blouse was paid a “fair wage”. A couple of weeks ago someone on our Facebook page asked if our workers are paid fairly. Leaving aside for the moment the question of what exactly is a “fair” wage (is it the minimum wage in Mexico which is currently about $5 US per day?) and how many workers in the U.S. or other countries actually receive a fair wage (are teachers paid a fair wage? how about the cooks in the restaurant you patronize?) let’s address the issue of exploitation, which is what I think people are really asking. It’s a good thing that more and more consumers care that the workers who produce the things they buy are treated well and paid fairly. But I need to ask you, when you’re traveling and you buy an object, an article of clothing or a rug from a vendor-- do you make sure you are paying a fair wage? Do you ever bargain for a better price? Do you ask the artisan if what you’re paying her is fair? Would you pay her more-- even if she didn’t ask you to? There is a movement in Mexico now to discourage buyers from bargaining, and it’s aimed mainly at Mexican tourists, who to be honest, are the worst offenders. That’s a first step-- accept the price asked by artisans and don’t coerce them into lowering it in order to make a sale. If you don’t want to or can’t pay their price, then you should politely say “no gracias,” and walk away. I often have to assure artisans that their price is fair or “justo”, I don’t expect them to lower it-- I just can’t afford it.
So here are my answers to the above question regarding our business and fair wages. The artisans/artists we buy from work independently and we are their customers. They do not work for us. They set the price of their products (art) and we pay what they ask, just like you would if you were to walk into their workshops-- which are in their homes. Occasionally they offer us a special discount for being loyal customers for ten years, but we do not bargain or haggle, and believe it or not, we pay the same price per item, no matter whether we're buying one platter or ten, i.e. we get no wholesale break.
A few years ago, when I wrote a dozen chapters of my memoir entitled “Why Importing Crafts from Mexico is Not for Wimps”, I wrote the following in response to a similar frequently asked question.
“How much does the artist get?”
We've been asked that a lot over the years, most often at large crafts events where attendees seem to feel comfortable wandering into one's booth and giving their opinions. I can’t imagine the same people going into a Bloomingdales or Tiffany's and questioning the sales clerk about the working conditions of the people who make their jewelry or leather goods. For some reason people have the idea that someone like me who is spending her weekend in a 10X10 space trying to entice strangers to buy handmade goods from Mexico must be exploiting the artisans. These well-intentioned folks have most likely never owned a business, and they most certainly have never tried to import crafts from Mexico. They know nothing about it or me, especially that my motivation for starting this business and for continuing it in spite of all the hassles and annoyances, was because I'm actually trying to help the artisans support themselves and maintain their families through the sale of their art.
As with any business, there are costs and expenses involved. The truth is there is very little profit in importing crafts if you choose not to exploit your providers and gauge your customers, i.e. if your only concern is the bottom line. In case you’re wondering, here's an example of how my business gets a piece of artesania you might see on my website delivered to your home. Let's take the clay candleholder which I am sending out to a customer right now. I paid Herlinda Morales about $5 for the piece. I had to fly to Michoacán (approximately $500 round trip if you go on a low-cost airline), pay for hotels and food, plus hire a driver to take me to Herlinda's workshop in Santa Fe de la Laguna, which is about a 40 minute drive from where I'm staying. The piece wasn't actually finished that day, so I had to pay my assistant to pick it up a month later, and then pack and ship it to California. I've related some of difficulties with that before, but that all costs money. It's hard to figure out the expenses for each individual item I bought on that trip, but there are a lot of costs in just bringing the product to the U.S. Here I have to pay for utilities, phone, internet, my website, packing materials, and my car so I can take the box that took me at least 20 minutes to carefully pack over to FedEx. They will charge $18 to ship it a hundred or so miles to your home, and you will pay it. I have to pay a commission to Paypal or Square on my credit card sales. If I sell the piece on consignment, the gallery will take 25-50%. If I take it to a crafts festival, I will have to pay a booth fee to the organizers which will cut into my profit margin. And I am just talking about my costs, not MY labor. I am figuring that like Herlinda, I probably received $5 from that sale as well. But of course, she has expenses also included in her price. But it is the price she set. Except in rare situations, I do not bargain with the artisans from whom I buy-- they set the price. So all in all, if the artisan receives $5 of the $48 plus tax you paid for that candelabra, I believe she has received a fair price. I estimate that I earned about $1.50 per hour-- so is that a fair wage here in the U.S.? If I paid her more, I would have to charge my customers more, because I can't reduce my expenses, and there’s a good chance I won’t be able to sell her pieces. If I don’t raise my price, I might lose money, and my business would not be sustainable. If my business is not sustainable, then I’d have to stop buying artesania from Michoacán's artisans, and that would be a loss for them. So as you can see, the answer to your well-intentioned question is quite complicated. Sorry you asked?