In an ideal world, collectives would be catalysts for societal progress, acting as agents of change. Throughout history, revolutions, social movements, and grassroots organizations have emerged to challenge oppressive systems. The advocate for human rights, and demand justice using the power of the collective. A compelling reason to embrace collectives is the notion that collective action is greater than the sum of its parts. Individuals working together can achieve outcomes that surpass what they could accomplish on their own. Through synergy and cooperation, collectives empower individuals to address challenges that might otherwise seem insurmountable.
However, despite the inherent benefits of working together, collaboration can be challenging. Balancing individual aspirations with collective goals requires effective communication, active listening, and a commitment to compromise. Creating inclusive spaces requires collectives to value diversity, respect different viewpoints, and foster a sense of belonging for all members.
As a fellow at Chaitanya WISE, I manage a collective-run enterprise called Kala Maitri. It aims to economically empower women weavers, garment manufacturers, and small-scale women entrepreneurs by promoting a Women’s Entrepreneurial Network (WEN). The WENs are craft-specific groups acting as a production unit that executes and fulfils the orders acquired. The women entrepreneurial collectives sell all their products under the brand label – Kala Maitri.
Kala Maitri as a project also focuses on operations and upskilling required for fulfilling orders. It’s function is to provide a platform for networking and marketing. The WEN members gather once a month for a Baithak. The purpose is to discuss order progress, payment status, member induction, production planning, and training activities.
I have facilitated seven of these baithaks (meetings) for the Silayi WEN and it has been quite an insightful experience. The craft here is garment construction and stitching. On most days, this role feels like walking on a tightrope. The interests of the individuals often fail to align with those of the collective. A common goal unites the collective but does not guarantee cooperation and collaboration. Diverse experiences, interests, power dynamics, and hierarchies hinder effective collaboration.
Challenges Of The Collective
1. Conflicting Interests
The problem originates from conflicting interests within a group despite shared common interests among its members. Take, for instance, the Silayi WEN, comprising women with varying capabilities, skills, resource access, religions, castes, and different social dynamics. They don’t always get along. Some have the freedom to spend over four hours at the Silayi center, while others rarely engage in activities outside their home. While these women share a common desire to earn, arriving at decisions that benefit all is still a tough nut to crack.
2. Cost Of Participation
If taking part in collective is costly, then people will soon stop participating. In a Silayi baithak, we made it mandatory to complete all stitching orders at the production hub, allowing us to supervise product quality. However, this means members can’t take raw material home to finish the orders. Soon, many women stopped showing up at all. Most women are allowed very little time to step outside the house, resulting in them barely getting any work done. Coming to the centre every day also meant having to spend time, energy, and money on commuting. Restrictions and interruption is also frequent when there is constant supervision. These factors increased the perceived cost of collective work, leading to a decline in participation compared to individual work.
3. Free Riding
If individuals realise that the collective will continue to function without their contribution, they may try to free-ride. Everyone needs to follow all decisions and time frames in order for the collective to work efficiently on its own. The members of the group share all responsibilities as this is crucial for the collective to work together. These members act as Prabandhaks (managers) for a particular order. We choose a new set of Prabandhaks for every new order. This ensures that there is always a set of people that keep an eye on the bigger picture and help pull everything together.
Addressing The Challenges
1. Access To Information
Lack of access to information acts as a barrier to effective decision making. We make sure to get our research in place before facilitating the WEN baithaks. The members are also expected to do the same. Having access to information helps develop a rationale that is used to arrive at common ground. For example, while setting the wage rate for stitching a particular design of kurta, we took into consideration the time it would take to cut and stitch it and standard market rates for the stitching. This helped us arrive at an average per-hour rate for cutting and stitching that could accommodate different skill levels. We now estimate the wage rates for stitching different styles of garments using this average.
2. Ensuring Fairness In Wages
If the fixed wage rates are lower than what women can earn individually, they are less likely to associate with the collective. Women in the cooperative stitch for their customers (mostly women from their neighbourhood who order blouses) while also working on Kala Maitri orders. They divide their time between the two as these orders are seasonal and there is little work guarantee throughout the year. Being a part of the collective ensures that they have work even when the demand for blouses is low. Women’s knowledge of work rates in various stitching setups positions Kala Maitri as a lucrative place to work.
3. Using Selective Incentives
The American political economist Mancur Olson popularized the problems of collective action in 1965. Olson states that the use of selective incentives can address the collective action problems in large groups. This approach helps boost participation. Selective incentives might be extra rewards contingent upon taking part in the action or penalties imposed on those who do not.
A good example of this approach is incentivizing the Prabandhaks with a nominal payment for taking for completing orders on time or exceeding monthly production targets. This ensures that the Prabandhak stays motivated and in turn, motivates others also to deliver. When thinking of incentives, one needs to think beyond just the monetary ones. Incentives can be in terms of getting access to more resources or even a simple token of appreciation recognizing their work.
4. Involvement in decision making
Greater participation in the decision-making helps ensure the model is truly led by women. It helps These baithaks act as spaces to set goals and identify the criteria for the incentives and disincentives. For example, the group imposes a fine on members who show up late for these meetings, which helps maintain discipline within the group. Selective incentives also motivate individuals to raise the bar of work done by the collective.
While it’s important for the members of the collective to be the decision-makers, it’s also crucial to pay attention to the power dynamics within the group to ensure that no single person or group holds autonomy. As a facilitator, I encourage women to ask questions and create space for women to share their thoughts by asking open-ended questions. At our baithak we usually vote out the issues where everyone is unable to reach a consensus through discussions.
Celebrating The Wins
Along with incentives and disincentives celebrating the wins goes a long way in building momentum. We, recently felicitated women in both Maheshwar and Ujjain who completed a ten-week training in fashion technology skill set. These are the women who will now act as master trainers for other women who want to get associated with the Silayi WEN.
Out of curiosity, I asked them what they would like to receive at the end of the training, a trophy or a perfect pair of scissors. The answer was unanimous – a trophy. One of them exclaimed that she has never had her name written on a cup. She would really like to receive one and add it to the display shelf beside those won by her family.
For women, being a part of this collection goes beyond just working and earning, claiming spaces they’ve never claimed before. Being a part of the decision-making process and receiving recognition for their work is also as significant as the pay check at the end of the month. The knowledge and skills acquired by participating in the collective action not only help them negotiate within the collective but also in their own households. Earning their own money also means they feel more confident to negotiate social norms that restrict them to step out of the house.
“I used to come to the office earlier also but I would have to go back home for lunch as my husband would expect me to be there. Today, nobody asks me any questions about my whereabouts if I say I am going to the office”
Through their collective efforts, they dismantle barriers, redefine norms, and inspire others to embrace the strength of unity. With women coming together, this collective-run enterprise not only thrives but also serves as a shining example of what they can accomplish, demonstrating that true power lies in collaboration, support, and solidarity.