FreesetPosted: October 5, 2011
Sonagachi, in Kolkata, is one of the biggest red light districts in Asia. Ten thousand prostitutes work here. Their lives are characterised by a cycle of exploitation and stigmatization. There are no opportunities for escape. Except one. Freeset is an oasis of freedom and opportunity that offers former prostitutes a way out of the trade. Started by New Zealand couple Kerry and Annie Hilton 10 years ago this month, Freeset offers prostitutes the chance to earn a decent living sewing bags and t-shirts. More than this, it offers them and their children a brighter future.
The building was nearly unmarked from the street, just a small sign saying ‘The Freeset Trust’. I missed it the first time and arrived 10 minutes late. The day starts at 10.00am with a morning meeting which takes place in the central courtyard of the main factory building. A few fans stir the air and the few arcs of tissue paper and tinsel remaining from their tenth birthday celebration that took place a few days earlier. Dozens of women, some with children, a few western volunteers and interns sprinkled among them are gathered round the central courtyard of the main factory building. They are singing when I arrive. I stand in the gloom sweating. Sunlight illuminates the courtyard and the women are radiant in their bright saris. Their hair is sleek, neatly pulled back and they sit listening intently to Kerry who addresses them in Bengali. He is wearing one of the new Freeset t-shirts made to celebrate their tenth anniversary. It reads Hope, Freedom, Respect. He’s talking to them about teamwork. As the talk goes on they coo to their babies, and chat quietly to themselves before being hushed by Kerry. Someone says something that provokes a flutter of giggles and Kerry gestures that the meeting is over and everyone gets up and heads to their work stations.
My guides for the morning are two of the Freeset interns, Lizzie and Hannah. Lizzie is a theology student from Christchurch who has been in Kolkata for two months. Hannah is originally from the United States but has been living in Kolkata for the last two years. As we tour the premises, Hannah and Lizzie tell me the Freeset story.
Twelve years ago Annie and Kerry and their four children left their life in New Zealand to help the poor in Kolkata. They spent two years learning Bengali, integrating in the community and making contacts. After trying a few different products they started making jute bags. They chose jute as a way to contribute to the local economy as it is a local product, grown by farmers around rural West Bengal. This is typical of Freeset’s holistic approach to improving lives in the entire community. Starting out with 20 women Freeset has since expanded to employ 180 women. They are former prostitutes, or “from the trade” as Hannah puts it. As women in the trade they were stigmatized, unemployable in any other trade and had no identity beyond being prostitutes. Many of them were sold or trafficked into the trade. Others were forced into it by a ‘babu’ – boyfriend – or ‘parasite’ as Hannah calls them.
Freeset employs women based not on their skills and expeirence but on the women’s need.
“We aim to replace business with business, trade with trade, economy with economy,” Hannah explains.
“We’re not an NGO, we’re a business and we make a profit.”
That profit goes towards expanding the business, hiring more women and increasing their wages. They are all paid the same at Freeset regardless of experience or how many bags they sew. The incentive to work hard comes from the peer pressure of the other women. Furthermore wherever possible when a woman starts working at Freeset she is encouraged to stay in her old room in the red light district. In this way Freeset hopes to gradually transform the local community.
When a woman starts working at Freeset she is given not only a decent wage but a chance at a new life. In addition to a regular salary, the women are given health insurance, a retirement plan and the chance to take out an interest free loan to pay off any debts tying her to her old life. Access to a healthcare is a particularly important benefit of working at Freeset.
“According to our nurse, of the 80 women she saw recently, only two didn’t have a health problem of some description,” Lizzie says. “These health problems range from STIs to malnutrition and anemia.”
The Hilton family live in the same building as the Freeset premises. There are rooms filled with sewing machines, others where bolts of cloth are cut for t shirts and up on the roof there are screen printing machines. Hannah lives in the building next door which the Freeset Trust bought in a rundown state. Several kiwi tradesmen are currently renovating the building, stripped to the waist in the heat and wearing Canterbury stubbies.
The women are friendly even as they work; joking with Hannah and Lizzie in a mix of English and Bengali, flirting with me and laughing at my moustache.
“It’s amazing to see the change that takes place in the women when they start working here,” Hannah says. “You can see it in their eyes. They just start to sparkle.”
From humble beginnings Freeset has already accomplished a lot for the women working for them. However their vision of freedom for an entire community of outcasts is even greater than this. To achieve this they rely heavily on word-of-mouth promotion of their products. If you would like to know more about Freeset, take a look at their website.