There is a factory in the heart of Kolkata – one more building in a city of fifteen million souls, one more wall in the unending labyrinth of twists and turns.
The main drag of Sonagacchi, the biggest red light district in Kolkata, the City of Joy, is just a few streets away. Within the space of a few square miles, 10,000 women and girls, daughters and grandmothers, sell their bodies on a daily basis to men with evil in their eyes – strung out, high, drunk, lurching from the central bar and into the all-enveloping darkness of the doorways. Out of the maze and into the belly of the beast.
Many of the women are trapped, enslaved in an oppressive system and shunned by their society. Women trafficked over borders from Nepal or Thailand, impoverished girls sold into slavery by their starving families in the villages of India, they form lines and crowd the doorways of Sonagacchi and call out to their customers, wear smiles pasted on for their oppressors.
But there is a factory in the heart of Kolkata where the sound of hope sings faint amid the humming of the sewing machines and the clacking of gears and generators, and where justice is not a cliché, but an ever present reality.
The factory is owned and operated by Freeset, a business that exists with the sole purpose of offering an employment alternative to women and vulnerable girls in the Sonagacchi brothels. They live incarnationally amongst the women, live in their neighborhoods, work down the street, and offer them training in sewing and jobs making t-shirts and bags out of jute (think burlap) and used saris.
Steve, a burly Kiwi who bears a faint resemblance to Patrick Swayze, has been working for Freeset for years. Before this job, he had a gig taking New Zealanders on short term mission trips around the world, at one point doing a series of visits on multiple continents to different anti-human trafficking efforts.
“Freeset was the best and most effective model I saw,” he says. “So I came back, and here I am.”
I step inside the building in Garish Park towards the end of the morning devotions; they’re optional, but most of the women seemed to have turned up. A man stands and speaks Bengali to over a hundred women, the factory workers, those who have managed to leave the lines. They smile and laugh and hold their heads high. Here, they earn twice the rate they would earn at a comparable job elsewhere in Kolkata. Here they have worth. Here they have dignity.
The building is arranged in an open square: rooms, staircases and open balconies on the sides, and an open space to the roof in the middle. Jute is bound in rolls against the basement floor wall, used saris hang to dry from the railings three stories up. They flap in the wind and the colors explode.
The factory floors buzz with activity. Steep, narrow staircases wind up from the corners and we move from floor to floor, peeking our heads through the doorways of the rooms where colorfully dressed Bengali women bend over their sewing machines, men cut fabric into patterns, boxes are carefully packed and stacked and moved for shipment, supplies placed in baskets and lowered three floors down with a makeshift “sari dumbwaiter.”
On the top floor machines print trendy designs with Indian patterns onto bags and T-shirts. Cogs and wheels spin and whir, a heating mechanism that appears to operate in the same manner as a giant easy-bake oven carries material through to quickly dry the paint. In one corner, up on a raised ledge, a group of women performs the final checks: snipping loose threads, attaching tags, hammering buttons. These are the women who have been unable to learn to sew, typically prevented by age, disease, or mental disability.
“We operate with the belief that ‘every woman has a job,’” says our Kiwi guide. “This work gives these women dignity.”
There is a factory in the heart of Kolkata, where hearts are mended with the stitching of bags, where hope is manufactured and distributed in the streets and the brothels of the City of Joy, where freedom fighters stand tall shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed and stare down the darkness.
The chains are real. But so is the hope.
“Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…”
– Isaiah 58:6