Freeset is a fair trade business offering jobs to women trapped in Kolkata's sex trade. They make quality jute bags and organic cotton t-shirts, but their business is freedom! Freeset is located in the largest infamous red-light district in Sonagacchi, Kolkata, India. Within a few square miles there are more than 10,000 women standing in line to sell their bodies. Many of them are trafficked from Bangladesh, Nepal and rural India. For some women, poverty and the cries of their hungry children gave them no options. Freeset would like to see the 10,000 sex workers in their neighbourhood empowered with the choice of leaving a profession they never chose in the first place.
In 1999 Kerry and Annie Hilton left New Zealand with their four children and moved to Kolkata to work and live amongst the poor. Naively, they signed up for an apartment at mid day. It was only when Kerry was taking a walk at night that he discovered they had moved into the largest red light district Sonagacchi. Their new neighbours were thousands of women forced into prostitution by trafficking and poverty.
To make a difference by returning freedom to these women, the Hiltons began to realise a business is needed to achieve it. Women could be trained with new skills for a new job and empowered with life-skills needed to appreciate freedom. After experimenting with different products and testing the market, they decided to make jute bags for the export market.
Birth of a Business
Freeset opened its doors in 2001 with twenty women brave enough to trust a couple of foreigners and seize the opportunity to leave the sex trade. Priya Mishra, an Indian doctor working in the community, played a key role in facilitating that trust and helping to grow the business.
It was hard work teaching unskilled women to sew at a quality acceptable for the export market. Some could barely use a pair of scissors. In those early days, the average daily output was less than two bags each. Would you believe some of the bags were sewn inside out and upside down?
These problems are overcome with training, lots of patience and a quality control system. While many of the women are still not the fastest sewers, the business now produces around 1000 bags a day. Consistent quality is important for Freeset to be a competitive, self sustaining business that is able to break the cycle of poverty and exploitation for these women once and for all.
The women are paid around twice the going rate for an equivalent job elsewhere. Part of their employment package comes with health insurance and a pension plan. Women have to be employed full-time to be given health insurance.
Every woman who finds freedom through Freeset also brings freedom to her family. They find hope for a brighter future and the means to make it a reality. As the business has grown, a positive community has emerged calling itself the "Freeset family". This family not only supports its own members, but impacts on the wider community. The common understanding is "we're in this together".
The Freeset Trust is a charitable organization which operates alongside the business providing literacy classes, child care, budgeting and debt management services.
Today more than 190 women are on their journey to freedom at Freeset.