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I am a teacher of Economics and Business Studies at James Hargest College in Invercargill. I recently took a sabbatical from teaching, and spent part of my time travelling to India.   My wife and I were privileged to spend a month working voluntarily for Freeset in Kolkata and the Freeset Business Incubator in the Murshidabad district. We were providing English language, computer and business skills training for emerging leaders in the Freeset business network.  During this time we also got to know the work of The Loyal Workshop and Sari Bari, two other “Freedom Businesses” in Kolkata. It was a great opportunity to learn about the freedom business concept. 

I have been interested in the changing models of business and their impact on the communities in which they operate.  While it is acknowledged that for many people in business, profit remains a primary motivator and focus, increasingly we are seeing people from a range of backgrounds viewing business as a vehicle for achieving a myriad of aims including to address environmental and social needs. 

Ethical businesses can be thought of as businesses that seek to “do the right thing”.  As a teacher I am conscious that our students are increasingly aware of issues relating to inequality, both locally and globally.  Many of my students are not content to shrug their shoulders and say “it’s too hard”.  I know that a number of NGO’s do great work in advocating for the disadvantaged and providing opportunities for them to act, but there are some great stories of businesses making an impact that should be told.

It was a privilege to work with Freeset and experience freedom business in operation.  It was equally satisfying to see the Loyal Workshop and Sari Bari operating successfully alongside Freeset with the same business goals.  While there is a sense in which these businesses are in competition, the reality is that they share many of their values and their overall mission and vision includes significant co-operation. Each business is working to free women from the bondage they are in and would love to see the community in which they work and live transformed. The people know each other, share resources and willingly provide support.

Production decisions for these businesses are inextricably linked to their values and mission. We witnessed how the freedom business model is not about a low cost production model.  For each of the businesses their raison d’etre is to employ more women from, or at risk of being drawn into, the sex industry.  Freeset, both in Kolkata and Murshidabad, the Loyal Workshop and Sari Bari all deliberately seek those with little or no education and skills and those who have significant social and emotional needs and pay them above market rates to learn a skill and make quality products.

The core value of their employment policies is to empower individuals and transform the community.  Included is a comprehensive training and welfare programme as central components for each business. Training involves significant elements of rehabilitation alongside educational and technical aspects.  There is a clear understanding that support needs to reach beyond the work place, with each business providing a social work component, working with families and the local community.  Needs that align with the wider social goals are administered through trusts attached to the business which can access funds via donations and grants to enable families and communities to transform together.

Personal Reflection

I have gained a great deal from this experience.  I have seen and to a degree shared in the lives of others very different from my own. My respect for the dignity of all people regardless of their ethnicity, culture or socio economic status has been affirmed. My eyes have been opened to the extent of the issues related to human trafficking but my outlook is not without hope. The work of the freedom businesses profiled in this report is inspiring and it has been a wonderful experience for me to be part of the tide of change. There are of course many other organisations working for the benefit of oppressed people in all parts of the world, but the nature of how business works allows disadvantaged people to contribute to their own empowerment and allows others to share in their journey through participating in the market place. For this reason, I believe that these stories need to be told and in Business Studies and Economics classrooms there are naturally occurring opportunities for this to happen.

Paul Redmond

Banzaid and Marketplacers International Ltd, are very pleased to announce that the West Bengal Freedom Businesses project has been approved by the New Zealand Aid Programme for funding support. The contracts have been signed, and we have received the first instalment of Aid Programme funds! This five year project in the Murshidabad District of the West Bengal State of India will establish a Business Incubator programme to initiate business ventures targeted at offering alternative employment to women at risk of being trafficked into the sex trade in Kolkata

The Murshidabad district is an area where sex-trafficking is particularly prevalent. Village poverty results in women being trafficked into the brothels of Kolkata. This joint project between Banzaid and Marketplacers International Ltd will reduce the incidence of trafficking from the district by strengthening the local economy and providing employment opportunities. Manufacturing businesses employing 250+ women will be established and mentored. The provision of advice, counselling and advocacy in areas of health, finances, and rights, will further empower the communities, helping build healthy, stable, economically sound village communities.

An estimated 10,000 sex-workers live and work in the Sonagacchi red light district of Kolkata. Many are trafficked from the surrounding villages of West Bengal and from neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Nepal. One solution that addresses the root cause is providing alternative means of income for those wanting to get out of the trade. In 2001, Freeset was founded as a social business offering economic choice to women in Sonagacchi. Since then Freeset Bags and Apparel (FBA) has grown into a medium sized manufacturing business now employing over 200 women in Sonagacchi.

Working with the women of Sonagacchi one of the things they discovered was that a significant number of the women came from Murshidabad. This project puts the ‘fence at the top of the cliff’ by providing a sustainable solution at the source of trafficking - the village. It extends the Freeset model to offer an alternative means of income for those at most threat of trafficking (young women) and their immediate family, including, where appropriate, brothers or fathers.

The core concept is establishing a “Business Incubator” as the hub that will work to establish new business units in the Murshidabad District. The initial five year target is to establish four new business units employing 250+ women from families identified as being at risk of being drawn into sex trafficking. Supporting the Incubator activity will be a training programme to equip the women with employment skills, both at production level and at management level; delivery of community social support services, including counselling services, and community education in areas such as health care, first aid, and basic life skills such as literacy and budgeting; and a community anti-trafficking and trafficking awareness programme. The goal is to see healthy, stable and economically strengthened village communities who value their women and resist the pressure for migration that provides the opportunity for the traffickers.

The first of these new businesses will be Freeset Fabrics. Freeset Fabrics has been set up to revive the traditional craft of handloom weaving in Murshidabad. The district was once renowned for silk and cotton handloom fabrics. This business will target young women from poor families who are at risk of being trafficked into Kolkata. Working with specialist designers they will learn to make products targeted at the markets of Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand. The first looms have already been set up, and the first training programme begun.

Unlike a purely commercial venture that would seek to employ those with the highest skills for the job at minimal expense, the social enterprise businesses set up through this project will specifically target those who are at risk, often with low levels of education, and will offer wages above the national minimum along with training, health care, child care, and superannuation plans.

Freeset has proved that this model can be competitive in the global market. However, due to its primary focus on public good rather than profit for shareholder benefit, it is not a model that attracts commercial financing. In 2014 Banzaid, Marketplacers and Freeset began working together on a proposal to the New Zealand Aid Programme for funding for the first five years of this project. This proposal has now been approved. The NZ Government Aid Programme will contribute Just over half of the budget. Banzaid and our partners will be responsible for the remainder.

This is an exciting project that needs your support! Use the Donate button above, or contact us for more ways to help.

Total Budget: NZ$ 2,539,000.
NZ Aid Programme funding: NZ$1,288,856.
Matching funds to be raised by Banzaid, Marketplacers and Freeset: NZ$ 1,250,000.

Start Date: July 2015.

The core of the West Bengal Business venture is the Business Incubator concept. The headquarters will be the centre for the business activity and the base for all support services. It will also be the marketing and communications centre and the production development hub, and provide offices and space for the training and social services.

The Incubator Headquarters

The headquarters facilities will provide the following incubator services to support the establishment of the proposed business units:

  • Business mentoring
  • Project management
  • Support and logistics services
  • Assistance with the legal and compliance requirements.
  • Assistance with the procurement of land, buildings and physical facilities for start-up businesses (FBi will retain ownership of these physical assets, holding them in trust on behalf of the participants and the target communities.)
  • Human resources services for the recruitment and training of suitable personnel
  • Accountancy services for the setting up of tax and financial compliance systems

The Product Development Hub

It is vital for any new business to have a product that meets market needs and is attractive.

The Product Development Hub will provide a service to the businesses in the West Bengal Freeset Business Incubator programme. A team of specialists will turn design concepts into products to be manufactured by Murshidabad freedom businesses.

Young women with talent for design will be trained under a 12 month apprenticeship to become fully functioning members of the FBi product development team.

Marketing and communications centre

Funds are required throughout the five-year start-up project period to set up and run the marketing and communications department and gain fair trade certification.

Planned Start-up Freedom Businesses

There are four initial business units planned under this 5 year project. Each business will follow the same social business model, with profits either returned to the business or used for the benefit of the target community. Once a business unit is firmly established and functioning it will commence paying for the Incubator services it receives.

The first Freedom Business, Freeset Fabrics, was established in 2015, in the township of Sherpur, 35kms west of Berhampore. It is a hand-loom weaving unit and by early 2017 was already employing over 50 women, producing beautifully designed hand-loom woven products for export. Murshidabad was once famous for its silk industry and hand crafted fabrics which has disappeared in recent decades due to a preference for mechanical production methods and synthetic materials. The current demand for handwoven items in Western markets is paving the way for the revitalisation of this industry.

During 2016 Freeset Fabrics have been awarded a social innovation grant from Harvard University South Asia Institute and Tata Trusts for technical and ergonomic improvements.

FBi’s designers have worked with Freeset Fabrics’ producers to create products targeted at Western markets and they are producing quality hand-woven fabrics for export. The scarves made by the Freeset Fabrics weaving unit are being bought by customers from New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the USA.

A further weaving unit is planned in nearby Valkundi, where a purpose built factory will have space for 200 employees.

Dulian is a township in the north of the District, and is home to a garments production unit which commenced in 2016. An old cinema hall has been leased and converted into factory facilities. The first group of women have completed training, and begun production of “punjamies” (baggy pyjama pants) under contract to another organisation who are exporting them.

Further weaving and sewing units are planned in other parts of the District as these initial units get up to speed with their production.

There is need for significant investment in this project as it includes the lease and/or purchase and refurbishment of buildings, and the purchase of production equipment for each of the business units. If you are interested in backing any of these Start-up businesses, please contact the Banzaid manager to talk through the business plans, staffing and funding needs.

The Freedom Businesses employ women at risk of being trafficked into the sex industry rather than for any skills or qualifications they might already have. Training is therefore a crucial component to the success of reaching the Freedom Business goals and in developing effective businesses. The training programme is about creating a pathway for staff members to improve themselves and their potential to further contribute to their communities’ economic activity. The training programme targets different levels:

Vocational Training

This training aims to equip women with practical skills relevant to the roles in which they will be employed. The basis of recruitment will be need and aptitude, not existing skills, so training for employees is essential to the functioning of each business unit. The vocational training involves short courses focused on the weaving, sewing or other skills and techniques needed for the business where the women will be employed.

There will be multiple training opportunities each year, depending on the number of new employees and where relevant more advanced training for existing employees.

Vocational training cost is NZ$500 per trainee. This covers all materials, tutoring, a stipend, food and accommodation where necessary. A more detailed breakdown of the budget is available on request.  

Freedom Opportunity

This is a management skills training programme aimed at developing young women from the target at-risk community. Candidates will have achieved a reasonable level of education and have demonstrated leadership potential. These young women are expected to fill leadership roles in the freedom businesses. They will be future production managers, supervisors, assistants and office staff within the freedom business network. There is also the potential for roles within the likes of Tamar, the social services provided through the Freeset Trust, and Justice Ventures International, our partners with anti-trafficking education and awareness. There is no reason that any staff member cannot ultimately become General Managers of a Freedom Business in the future.

Freedom Opportunity will be open to 10 trainees per year. We are looking to raise funds for 50 scholarships over the 5 years of the project period.

Freedom Opportunity costs NZ$771 for one full year scholarship. This is a per candidate training cost and covers all materials, tutoring, a stipend, food and accommodation where necessary. A more detailed breakdown of the budget is available on request.

Freedom Exposure

The Freedom Exposure course will be for people with a heart for justice, committed to the vision of freedom business. This is a 12-month management development programme aimed at providing future business leaders for freedom businesses. Candidates will be expected to be graduates and have an aptitude for business management. Much of the time will be spent embedded in freedom businesses, learning on the job, but there will also be considerable structured learning and on-going mentoring.

A freedom exposure scholarship is worth $2811 for each candidate. This is a per candidate training cost and covers all materials, tutoring, a stipend, food and accommodation where necessary. A more detailed breakdown of the budget is available on request.

Freedom Encounter

This is an intensive three-week exposure to the work of Freedom Businesses in Kolkata and Murshidabad. It is targeted to recruiting social entrepreneurs (both foreign and Indian) to the Freedom Business concept. It enables a significant encounter with rural and urban poverty in West Bengal and provides an understanding of the connection between poverty and the trafficking of women into Kolkata’s extensive sex-trade. Previous attendees are now involved in running or enabling the start-up of freedom businesses.

The Freedom Encounter is self-funding, with participants expected to cover all costs

The overall goal of the project is “Healthy, stable, economically sound communities that do not need to send their daughters to the city for employment”. This is about building economically and socially stronger local communities that will result in reduced migration to the city, with the risk of getting trapped by the traffickers.

Freeset Business Incubator

The core of the Freedom Business venture is the Business Incubator concept. The Business Incubator will be the centre for all the activities and the base for support services.

The Incubator Services

  • Business mentoring
  • Project management
  • Support and logistics services
  • Assistance with the legal and compliance requirements.
  • Assistance with the procurement of land, buildings and physical facilities for start-up businesses
  • Human resources services for the recruitment and training of suitable personnel
  • Accountancy services for the setting up of tax and financial compliance systems
  • Marketing and communications
  • Product development and research

Start-up Freedom Businesses

There are five initial business units planned under this 5 year project. Each business will follow the same social business model, with profits either returned to the business or used for the benefit of the target community. Once a business unit is firmly established and functioning it will commence paying for the Incubator services it receives.

Freeset Fabrics is the first of the new businesses, and is already producing quality hand-woven fabrics for the export market.

Dulian has commenced as a sewing unit, producing garments under order from another Indian organisation. Long term this unit will provide the capability to add value to cloth produced by Freeset Fabrics.

Further weaving and sewing units are planned in other parts of the district to provide additional capacity in these key production areas. Other ventures will be investigated as opportunities are found and suitable entrepreneurial staff are available.

The Training Programme

The training programme is designed to equip women with the vocational skills that are needed for the businesses that they will be working in. These will be at different levels, ranging from basic employment skills, through to accounting, management and leadership.

Vocational Skills training: block courses focused on the skills needed for the business where the women will be employed. The basis of recruitment will be need and aptitude, not skills, so skills training for employees will be essential to the functioning of the business.

Management Training: aimed at developing young women from the target at-risk community with a reasonable educational standard and leadership potential. These women will be future production managers, supervisors, assistants and office staff, within the freedom business network.

Graduate Management: Candidates will be graduates who have both a heart for the freedom business aims and an aptitude for business management. They will not necessarily be from the at-risk community, but will be people with a heart and a vision for the community. Much of the time will be spent embedded in freedom businesses, learning on the job, but there will also be considerable structured learning and on-going mentoring.

 Social Entrepreneurs: this is an intensive three-week exposure to the work of Freedom Businesses in Kolkata and Murshidabad. It is targeted to recruiting social entrepreneurs (both foreign and Indian) to the Freedom Business concept. It enables a significant encounter with rural and urban poverty in West Bengal and provides an understanding of the connection between poverty and the trafficking of women into Kolkata’s extensive sex-trade.

The Social Support Services

Alongside the business incubator and the training programme will be a unit for the provision of social services for the employees of the businesses and their families.

Social support services will include:

  • Counselling services (420 people over the 5 years)
  • Community education programmes such as basic literacy skills, health care, family budgeting etc. (334 people over the 5 year period).

Anti-Trafficking and Trafficking Awareness Programme

The fourth goal for the project will be partnering with JVI to carry out an awareness campaign for community mobilisation for prevention of trafficking. This will:

  • Link with other anti-trafficking organisations to bring some of the national level anti trafficking campaigns to the Murshidabad district
  • Work at raising the awareness of trafficking issues in the community (4 awareness events per year/50 attendees per event)
  • Work with local government and police authorities to promote action against traffickers
  • Build networks of local NGOs and community groups working on trafficking and bonded labour issues.

“Healthy, stable, economically sound communities that do not need to send their daughters to the city for employment.”

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