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.
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.