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The Murshidabad District is one of the poorest in West Bengal. Trafficking agents prey on this poverty to trap young women into the brothels of Kolkata. The key target of the Murshidabad programme was the creation of employment opportunities in the District for women assessed as being at risk of being caught in these trafficking networks.

The project began in 2014 with the establishment of Freeset Fabrics in Sherpur as a unit based on handloom weaving, and a unit in Dhulian in the north of the district as a sewing unit producing garments for another Indian based organisation. In 2015 New Zealand Government Aid Programme funding was approved.

The first years of the project progressed well. However, by 2018 problems began to show up. The weaving unit which had begun with enormous promise failed to sell the scarves which were their signature product. Experiments with alternative products didn’t manage to find any items that generated significant sales. The looms were progressively dismantled and put into storage, commercial sewing machines were purchased and the women trained in making bags for the parent company in Kolkata.

At the same time, the garments production contract with Sudara for the Dhulian unit fell through, and the Dhulian unit also transferred to the production of bags.

The model that we were following was to establish independent business units supported by a business incubator programme that would hold properties in trust and would provide technical services such as legal and accounting services for the units. Changes in Indian regulations caused difficulties for this approach, with the result that the concept of independent companies was suspended, and all the employees were transferred to Freeset Bags and Apparel (FBA) to operate as a single company with the support services being provided through the FBA head office facilities in Kolkata.

This change put significant stress on FBA. While bag orders have been good, they have not been enough to support this increase in the number of employees making bags. Through the year a number of adjustments were made to reduce costs. The Dakbangla unit was merged with Sherpur, and restructuring was done in Kolkata, reducing the number of staff in the city production.

However, by June 2019 it was apparent that this was not enough. FBA was heading into serious financial issues, and we faced the risk of collapsing the whole operation. From New Zealand the decision was made to close the combined Dakbangla and Sherpur units, leaving just the small Dhulian unit operating. Closing the Dakbangla and Sherpur units makes 80% of the women employed under the project redundant. In this context, the New Zealand Aid Programme made the decision to withdraw from funding the programme. Reporting on the Aid Programme funded activity was completed in October (see Financial Summary below).

The partners have not abandoned the Freedom Business vision. There will be a period of restructuring of the business with the aim that over the next 5 year period we will again be able to expand employment opportunities in the Murshidabad district, alongside the original core Kolkata programme. This restructuring will include a merger with other entities with the same Freedom Business ethos.

Through the period of this restructuring, the business will still be carrying more women than they have work for. Our parent organisation (NZBMS) is proposing a special project that will support these women through the transition period until the business is again able to generate enough work.

We invite friends and supporters of the Freedom Business concept to consider supporting this special project. We are asking for NZ$2500 per year for each woman supported. We recognise that this is a large amount, and so invite you to consider this as a Church, home group or extended family project.

NZBMS Special Project

Freeset now faces significant business challenges and is currently in the process of merging with two other organisations (Liminal Apparel and Freeset USA). The new venture will be called “The Banyan Tree’.

Freeset employed a large number of women to work on new products and manufacturing systems that have failed. The business now does not have enough orders to provide work for all the women employed.

NZBMS have agreed to subsidise the employment of 82 women during the merger transition period. We ask you to please consider financially contributing towards this cost.

To cover the costs of this project in the coming year, please consider contributing $2,500 per woman.

Donate online here or contact us for banking details

(82 women to be subsidised in the upcoming 2019/2020 year)

Financial Statement

The table below has the final summary of income and expenditure for the New Zealand Aid Programme funded part of the project:

Aid Programme Grants (2015-2018)

$878,727

Donations

$782,039

Expenditure

$1,412,617

Funds in hand (NZ and India) at 30/6/2019

$228,149

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