There are an estimated 12.3 million people globally who have been stripped of their dignity through human trafficking. Every bag represents a woman’s journey to freedom. It takes many women to make just one bag.
All profits from Freeset in Kolkata benefit the women (salary, health insurance and retirement plan) and are used to grow the business. This means more women can be employed and experience freedom. The great thing is, when you buy a Freeset product, you directly participate in a woman’s journey to freedom.
Freedom through Freeset
Hidden in depths of a Kolkata slums is a very special factory with a strong Kiwi connection. Sonagacchi, in Kolkata, is one of Asia’s largest red light districts. Within just a few square miles over 10 000 prostitutes literally line the streets, driven into prostitution through extreme poverty or are victims of the growing business of human trafficking.
It is in this unlikely spot that Kerry and Anne Hilton found themselves in 1999. The Auckland couple and their four children moved to India wanting to help the poor. Naively, they signed up for an apartment in the middle of the day only to discover that night that they were smack bang in the middle of the cities notorious red light district. But this is where they would discover the plight of so many women and discover how they could truly make a difference.
In 2001 the Freeset factory opened with 20 women who all had to be taught the skills needed to produce export quality bags. This was no mean feat as many of the women couldn’t even use a pair of scissors let alone sew. Lots of patience, training and quality control helped to overcome these issues and the factory now produces up to 1000 bags a day. Plus they have recently opened a T shirt factory which produces beautiful fair-trade organic cotton Tees.
Hamilton woman, Pam McCarthy had been following the Hiltons story with interest. In 2009 Pam and her husband John had sold their farm in the King Country and this, Pam says, “gave me an opportunity to do something way outside my comfort zone.” So, along with their daughter Olivia, Pam made her first trip to India where she volunteered in the Freeset factory. Pam, a social worker back home says that the moment she stood inside the factory she knew this was something that had captured her, “sitting alongside those women has to be the best moment in my life.”
On her return to New Zealand Pam decided she too could do her bit by helping to sell the bags here. So together with her friend Cherry they set about arranging speaking engagements with local groups so they could tell the Freeset story and then sell everyone a bag. Pam says “I don’t think we could have imagined what we would have achieved in two years.” From Rotary clubs to Country Woman’s Institutes in the back of beyond, Pam and Cherry were on a mission to tell as many people as possible about the plight of these women. “I need to tell the story” says Pam “to help free the girls. That’s my motivation.” Then last year Tamahere market came on board and allowed them a site to sell the bags on a regular basis to the public. Pam’s next goal is to encourage people to use the bags for conferences. The bags can be customised with company logos being printed on them and Pam is always willing to come along and tell people the story behind their bag.
What started with 20 women has grown to nearly 200 and Pam has clearly seen the difference Freeset has made, not only to the women, but their families too. Pam remembers that first visit and the stark contrast of happy women chatting and laughing inside the factory and what was going on outside.
Both Pam and her daughter have recently returned from another visit to the factory. To get to the factory you have to navigate down several seriously filthy alleys. Pam nicknamed the worst, “effluent alley”. Once inside the factory it is hot and crammed yet there is a real sense of joy. The women are paid almost twice the going rate for similar work in India, their children go to day care and school and they have health insurance as well as a pension scheme.
Yet their triumphs and joy truly illustrate the success of Freeset. One family Pam visited had just bought a fridge. This was a monumental occasion! The fridge, worth around 300 NZ dollars, is their pride and joy. The kids dressed up in their best saris to pose for Pam in front of this family treasure. One of these children, Sweetie who is 10 years old, told Pam she wanted to be a doctor when she grows up. Sweeties mother and grandmother were both prostitutes but with the help from people like the Hiltons, the McCarthy’s and everyone else who have made Freeset a reality Sweetie now has the freedom to dream of being a doctor.
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”.