Kerry and Annie Hilton are a couple from New Zealand who came to Kolkata to live and work among the poor in 1999. After quite unintentionally moving into a red light area in the city, they developed a passion for finding ways for women to become free of the sex trade. They invested time learning to speak Bengali and building relationships in the community around them. One night Annie ran out of flour and while out with Kerry searching to find more, they met Priya. She was involved in a local women’s clinic that was closing down and Kerry noticed their sign-board in the back of the little shop. After only a couple of minutes of conversation they discovered their common interest of bringing freedom to the women of the area. Priya became the doorway into the community.
The first meeting with interested women took place in June, 2001. One of the women recalled of that meeting, “I was a bit sceptical of them but thought they looked like good people who mixed well with us. As we became friends I trusted them more.“ Trust was a big issue for women who had been betrayed by many and disappointed by foreigners who had come before promising help, but who had delivered little. Freeset began 10 years ago on September 17th 2001 with 20 women in 5 small rented rooms.
The women were excited - though a little anxious - to be involved with the cleaning and painting of the rooms, where they would begin working in this business for freedom. They made quite a sight as they went home those first few days all covered in dust. Soon it was time to learn the sewing… Most of the women had never used a sewing machine and many were illiterate. Some weren’t even convinced they would be able to master this new skill. “I learned to sew on a pedal machine. I couldn’t get the machine to work at first... Then, when I finally got the machine to work I couldn’t sew.” recalls Bharati who goes on to say, ”Once Kerry gave me some rope to cut and a hard board to cut it on. I cut right through the board and scratched the floor. Kerry gave me the knife to cut with because I couldn’t use scissors.“ But she has found her place at Freeset and although sewing wasn’t her thing, she says, “I am good at cutting and finishing, and I enjoy it.”
Annie says of those early days, “Once we thought they had found every wrong way possible to sew a bag, they would surprise us by discovering a new one. But they worked hard and eventually they got it.” Parul recalls how productivity has been a struggle too, “In the beginning out of 20 women... we used to make 30 bags per day.” Kerry was always looking for ways to ensure Freeset would be a sustainable business, “My concern was that if the women could never improve the quality and quantity then at some point the business would have to be shut down... I used to say, ‘If you make 2 bags per day try to make 3, if you make 3, then try to make 4.’”
Freeset’s first order was for 1000 bags to Huckleberry Farms in New Zealand. Production began at the beginning of January 2002 and with just 20 women fresh out of training, the order took about 3 months to complete including some long days. “In the first order I made 50 bad gussets” says Kundula, “Kerry was very particular so I had to re-sew 50 gussets”. Relieved when they got the call from the customer saying they liked the bags, Freeset had a hard-earned celebration.
The first payday marked an important milestone for the women working at Freeset. For Bharati, it was about trust; “When we started getting paid, then I felt that the Hilton’s were really trustworthy.” For Kundula that first pay was about freedom, “Kerry asked who was willing to quit the line. I was the first one to put up my hand and say ‘Yes’. I promised to Kerry, whatever salary I am given I will quit the [sex] line and would never look back.”
During the first month on full-pay, two women who had not been officially employed kept coming to work each day despite being told that Freeset couldn’t afford to pay them. At the end of the month each of the paid women pooled money from their own salaries and gave it to the two women themselves. Kerry says, “The women taught me a great lesson and I realized then that I had a lot to learn from these women.”
Ten years later Freeset has purchased two buildings where nearly 200 women work each day. Last year Freeset made 175,000 bags and 42,000 T-shirts. While many have been involved in the journey that has become Freeset, none deserve the credit more than the courageous women of Freeset themselves. Perhaps one of the women says it best, “I really feel very happy to see Freeset in today’s position. We’ve made it a long way from 10 years back to today. I just pray, as we formed the foundation of Freeset, it becomes a place of freedom to many women in the future.”