Weaving Freedom in Rural India

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Traveling to Rural India is like walking into a living  National Geographic article. Men walk past wearing straw hats and carrying large bales of hay on their head. Women wear bright saris and keep their heads covered to passers-by. You are greeted everywhere by cows and goats. (and sometimes monkeys!)

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The main two crops grown in rural West Bengal are rice and jute.

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Rice paddies.

 

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Jute crops

This week, I was visiting with Freeset Fabrics in Murshidabad. These factories, which train women in traditional weaving, were created to help impoverished women in this area, which is one of the greatest sources of sex trafficking in the State of West Bengal. Most of the families here survive off of subsistence farming, which only provides for a few months of the year. Weaving means that these women can provide for their families year-round without having to worry about selling their bodies.

“If I did not work here at Freeset Fabrics, my family and I would all die from poverty.” – Aruna

20170708_105546Within 2 years of weaving scarves, Aruna is now one of the best weavers at Freeset Fabrics in rural West Bengal. She’s able to buy nutritious food for her two daughters, pay for her mother’s operation, and install a water tap in her home. Now, she plans to build a new home; she has dreams! Despite being in a culture that struggles with seeing women as equal to men, Aruna realized for herself that she is equal to a man. She understands her value as an individual and as a woman now. (1)

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We cleaned up the whole factory!

In India, “Every stage of existence – birth, betrothal, marriage, death – is marked with gifts of cloth. . . As a result, women’s wardrobes are like fabric archives of their lives, recalling significant relationships and events. Gifts of cloth forge new relationships and sustain older ones.” (2) Thus, it makes sense that Freeset would choose the path of textiles to offer freedom to women in rural West Bengal.

Sources:

(1) “Freeset Fabrics: Our journey so far.” Freeset – News. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2017. <http://freesetglobal.com/news/98/80/Freeset-Fabrics-Our-journey-so-far&gt;.

(2) Tarlo, Emma. “Life’s Great Pageant.” V & A MagazineWinter 2015: n. pag. Print.

Principles of Fair Trade: The Freeset Example

I first learned about these 10 principles of fair trade when I saw them hanging up all over the walls at my summer home, Freeset Bags & Apparel in Kolkata, India. Freeset, which provides education and alternative employment to former sex workers from the Sonagachi red light district of Kolkata, is a great example of these fair trade principles working for the benefit of others.

Freeset - Fair Trade and Organic Certified
image source: http://freesetglobal.com/who-we-are/fair-trade
  1. Opportunities for disadvantaged producers
    Freeset’s main focus is giving women in the sex trade a choice. Many of these women are born into the trade. They may be second or third generation workers; with little-to-no formal education, they often have no choice but to follow in the footsteps of those around them. Others are trafficked and sold into the trade, often by family members.

    Freeset has also started new businesses in rural India from areas where women and girls are frequently trafficked from. Additionally, the Freeset Trust provides the Tamar Community Center, which allows any of the women of the Sonagachi district to come and learn numeracy and literacy.

  2. Transparency & accountability.

    When it comes to transparency, anyone can set up a tour of the factory on weekdays to see what the working conditions are like for these women: http://freesetglobal.com/contact/visiting. Additionally, by having a “Fair Trade Guaranteed” standard awarded to them by the World Fair Trade Organization, they are held accountable by an outside source to adhere to these 10 principles of fair trade.

    Accountability is becoming increasingly important for all businesses, not just those that consider themselves “fair trade.” There is a societal push for companies to listen too all their stakeholders, not just their shareholders. According to Freeset’s website, “The women actively engage in running the business. They have their own committee which liaises with management to ensure their voices are heard. This committee has the final say over many internal decisions and issues relating to employees.” (1)

    We are all in this together
    freesetglobal.com
  3. Fair trading practices.

    Fair trading is good trading. Not only does fair trade adhere to all trade laws of both the country it belongs to and the country it is going to, but it also ensures pricing that is both competitive to its buyers and value-driven enough to provide fair wages to its constituents. The majority of Freeset’s business is with international partners, and so fair pricing is a big part of their fair trading process (and a large part of what I’m working on this summer).

  4. Fair payments

    The revenues from Freeset Bags & Apparel go directly to the women, providing fair wages, health insurance, and retirement plans. 

  5. No child or forced labor.

    No woman is made to come work at Freeset; there are no raids or “rescue missions” into Sonagachi. Rather, by building relationships with the women there, those that want to seek freedom from prostitution are invited in to become part of the story at Freeset. I have heard a story of one of these women asking permission from her “madam” to come work for Freeset; her madam said yes, that it would be good for her. This woman then danced around and told all the other girls working the line that they could come with her and find freedom too.

  6. No discrimination, focus on women’s rights, and gender equity.

    In addition to the former sex workers, there are also several male nationals working at Freeset. This helps to create healthier working relationships between women and men living in Kolkata, especially for the women who have been abused by men for most of their lives.

    The majority of workers, though, are women from Sonagachi — nearly 250. Every morning before work, they gather together for singing and words of encouragement; the variety of saris makes for a scene more colorful than any garden you’ve ever been to.

    Freeset group photo - look how big we have grown
    Old photo | freesetglobal.com
  7. Good working conditions.

    These women come from work which had no set hours, no guarantee of rest, and limited rights. Now, they still work in a hot climate, but Freeset provides ceiling fans and filtered water to help offset the heat. They have a set schedule from 10-7 Monday-Saturday (plus occasional paid overtime), and a guaranteed day of rest on Sundays. The women laugh and chat together while they do their work. There’s childcare services, so they don’t have to worry about their small children. There are two set cha tea breaks at 12 and 5, and an hour for lunch from 2-3.

  8. Capacity building.

    As mentioned before, the Tamar Community Center provides any interested woman in the area the opportunity to learn numeracy and literacy. Freeset intentionally targets the least educated women with the least opportunities so that they can train them in a new skill. There are many different stages in manufacturing a bag, including sewing, screenprinting, and finishing work.

    Older women who have spent their lives in the trade and thus might not have many fine motor skills may be trained to do finishing work on bags, cutting off stray threads and making sure they look beautiful. Still others will gain advanced training using a sewing machine when manufacturing tee shirts. Additionally, when training for their new jobs, women receive training in both numeracy and literacy. I heard a story of one girl who, after her training, figured out just how much she had been getting swindled in change at the market — and who now knew how to fight back.

  9. Promoting fair trade.

    Despite the increasing number of fair trade companies based out of India, there is little domestic demand for “fair trade” products specifically. However, that is changing. There is an increasing interest in eco-conscious products (one element of fair trade), as well as an increasing interest in strong, socially conscious brands among older, richer women of India. One part of the work Freeset is doing is breaking in to the Indian market, with a strong emphasis on the importance of Fair Trade principles.

  10. Respect for the environment.

    There are many different elements of Freeset’s products that are ecologically-conscious. The jute shopping bags they manufacture are much more earth-friendly than plastic bags, taking only 2-3 years to decompose rather than the 1000 years that plastic takes. (2) (And, being surrounded by plastic in the streets of Kolkata, this is very visceral for me.) The cotton in their Tees is “GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified 100% organic, which means it is good for the grower and for you.” (3) The jute also all comes from local growers. In the Kolkata facility, they use only water-based ink for screen printing, avoiding harmful petro-chemicals and compounds. (4)

Teacups - Womens Quarter Sleeve
100% Organic cotton goodness. | freesetusa.com

Hopefully that information has inspired you to become a more conscious consumer! You can check out Freeset’s products here: https://freesetusa.com/collections (USA customers only; poke around a bit and you can find distributors for other countries)

Sources:

(1) “Freeset – Our Philosophy.” Freeset – Our Philosophy, freesetglobal.com/who-we-are/our-philosophy. Accessed 3 July 2017.

(2) “Freeset – FAQ.” Freeset – FAQ, freesetglobal.com/who-we-are/faq. Accessed 3 July 2017.

(3) “Sustainable, people-Centered products.” Freeset – Fair Trade & Organic, freesetglobal.com/who-we-are/fair-trade. Accessed 3 July 2017.

(4) “Organic Cotton.” Organic Cotton, freesetglobal.com/tees/organic-cotton. Accessed 3 July 2017.