In Business for Freedom: The Red Light District of Kolkata

The company ‘FBA’ is located in the largest, and most infamous sex district in Kolkata, India. Within a few square miles more than 10,000 women stand in line selling their bodies to thousands of men who visit daily. Many are trafficked from Bangladesh, Nepal and rural India. For others poverty has left them without options. The cries of hungry children drive them to sell their bodies. FBA opened its doors in 2001 starting with twenty women who were desperate for an opportunity to be free. It was hard work teaching uneducated and unskilled women to sew jute bags at a quality acceptable for the export market. Some could barely use a pair of scissors and in those early days the average daily output per person was less than two bags. It was particularly frustrating when bags were sewn upside down and inside out and nobody noticed. Slowly these problems were overcome with much training and patience. Today, while many of the women are still not the fastest sewers, the business produces around 1000 bags a day made from jute and cotton material.

FBA entered a new market in 2009 by offering fair trade organic cotton tees (t-shirts). Girls showing ability in bag sewing were given the opportunity to train and learn new skills sewing t-shirts. Although smaller than the bags unit, FBA Tees is capable of producing 400 tees per day.

In the first few years all screen-printing was outsourced locally, however print quality and timely supply was out of our control. To overcome these problems and take advantage of the opportunity to create more jobs for freedom, FBA now has its own screen-printing unit supplying two customers, FBA Bags and FBA Tees.

FBA is a fair trade business offering employment to women trapped in Kolkata’s sex trade. We make quality jute and cotton bags and organic cotton t-shirts—but our actual business is freedom.  FBA exports bags and t-shirts to approximately 30 countries with the U.S. Canada, UK, New Zealand, Australia and France being the biggest markets. FBA is a member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) and as of October 2012 employs 190 staff.

Strategy and Vision

We believe in Jesus who was and is God. He became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. As our neighbor he showed us afresh who God is, his nature and his heart. Jesus, in his first recorded public speaking stint in Luke (Chapter 4) grabbed Isaiah’s words and made them his own. “Chosen to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind—freedom for the oppressed, the year of the Lords favor.”

Since Jesus, who is God made flesh, is on about these things then we who claim to follow him simply need to be on about the same things too. Business makes a whole lot of sense when it comes to bringing good news, releasing captives, the blind getting to see and those who are oppressed choosing freedom.

Our Mission Statement is “In Business for Freedom”.

FBA is about offering the choice of freedom to women trapped in prostitution through dignified employment, good pay in the context of a loving caring community.

Ultimate Freedom is knowing the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.

Our Community

Who we are as a community and who we are as a business entity are not and must not be separate. Business flows out of our identity as a community. Although our business is focused on those in the Asian sex industry, our communities must know no bounds.

As business communities our first responsibility is to the women and children who still stand in line selling their bodies because they have no choice. While there are so many such women and children, FBA must always be in a state of growth. We understand ultimately growth means orchestrating a business takeover. FBA as a freedom business must seek to bring down a slavery business (in the form of an Asian sex industry) which thrives through exploitation of the poor.

We are committed to growing new business communities that bring freedom among those who are designated above. We commit ourselves to help support and grow such business communities. Because relationships are foundational for FBA these communities are unlikely to be more than 150 people.

We understand, within a business context, the FBA brand is important to the growth of these communities in terms of the sale of products and services. We undertake to ensure the FBA brand and the freedom it stands for, is not watered down.

We are not about rescuing women from the sex trade nor do we seek to remove them from the area. On the contrary we are about transformation of communities where women and children are forced to “stand in line.” To this end FBA commits itself to operate business within the same communities, seeking to bring change from the inside out. Foreigners who come to serve in the business are expected to live as neighbors in the communities.

We recognize that stories of freedom are helpful marketing tools, but we understand there are boundaries as to how they should be used. Our products and services must be able to stand-alone in the market on quality and price. The use of story is there to help the customer choose over other products and not to motivate purchase simply on the basis of story. Freedom from exploitation means FBA will take great care in how both individual and corporate stories are used in the marketplace.

The product we make or service we provide does not define us—our business is freedom. We make it our business to stand against injustice, particularly for those to whom we are responsible.

Business Goals

Through healthy sustainable business we aim for:

  • Good products at a fair price.
  • Brand recognition in the marketplace.
  • Thousands Women free from the slavery of prostitution. FBA is building a strategy to incubate and grow new freedom businesses.
  • Women knowing ultimate freedom in the grace and mercy of Jesus
  • Work and worship as a shared experience by employees and an increasing worship participation by the local community.
  • Transformation of the community from the inside out and not from the outside in (The Word moved into the neighborhood).
  • Women living in the same neighborhood where they once were sex slaves becoming agents of freedom for their community.
  • Wages earned with dignity, spent in the community and supporting the local economy.
  • Growers, suppliers —every part of the supply chain earning/ receiving remuneration for their efforts.
  • We look after our environment continually seeking to improve and be responsible caretakers in all business practices.
BAM Experiences

Freedom for a few: After 11 years of operation a number women have had the opportunity to choose freedom. This includes current employees as well as women who are now married and are housewives and mothers as well as others who have gained dignified employment elsewhere. The children of the current employees, particularly the daughters who will now never enter prostitution are a cause for celebration.

Business, the catalyst for community: At the beginning we never realized just how much business has this amazing ability to create a loving caring community. Work and worship: who would have thought!

A community learning what it means to be transformed beginning to have the courage to participate in the transformation of the wider community.

The gift of grace and living with the poor: It’s hard to imagine anything better than living out life with women who have found freedom from prostitution and have come to know the saving grace of Christ. For those of us who are not poor there is the added privilege of living alongside those who are and learning who God is and what the Kingdom is all about from them from. We understand this is biblical.

The wider community sees something good: The surrounding community who are not the oppressors and who do not earn from prostitution generally acknowledge something good is going on. Leaders of the “dom” community (considered outcastes) who live alongside the sex community have approached FBA to set up this kind of Kingdom business in their community too.

A freedom brand: Although still in its infancy, FBA is beginning to have some brand recognition in the marketplace. Although FBA wants to be known as a “freedom brand” it’s encouraging to hear feedback that the brand / product also represents quality—an attribute we strive for.

Profitable / sustainable: For the number of staff employed FBA has never achieved huge annual turnovers or profits however from day one the business has been profitable which has allowed growth in our most desired area—employment.

Leaders are beginning to emerge: From amongst the women leaders are emerging, being trained and are appointed to new positions within the business.

Lessons learned from failure

Not every woman at FBA is free: FBA’s desire is for every woman employed to be free. However, sadly this is not the case. A job in itself is not freedom. Some do find freedom the day they begin their new job. For others it comes when they receive their first pay and can afford to leave the sex trade, but for many it’s a journey. They need to learn how to be free from their past that somehow prevents them from being free in the present. Others have, what I call, leeches attached to them, men and women who selfishly gain from keeping women in prostitution. FBA is in business for freedom and when even one woman is not free FBA is failing in its core business.

A year ago FBA established Tamar (Genesis 38). Tamar is responsible to facilitate the things that FBA the business cannot do well. Education for children, counseling, assistance with healthcare, help with housing, debt issues to name a few. Originally, the “FBA Trust” was established however the Trust has failed to operate in the areas successfully but we believe Tamar will.

It always takes longer than you think: FBA planned to have more than 300 free women in employment by 2012 and the business has not even reached 200. As is the case for many businesses the financial crisis has made it difficult to stay afloat let alone grow. Growth has been achieved but at very slow pace as far as we are concerned. There are 10,000 women within a mile of the FBA business location. We have a long way to go to see the transformation of our community.

Good systems have been difficult to put in place: Good intentions don’t always lead to good systems. We’ve worked a bit harder on this area in the last year or so and have seen some progress however the business has a long way to go to create the kind of systems that need to be in place for healthy growth.

Not enough Indian staff in middle management: Try as we may, it has been very difficult to employ competent educated Indian staff in management, particularly women. Culturally it appears too difficult to work in a Red light area or with women who have been in prostitution. Despite many interviews and offering competitive salaries some new appointees have only lasted a few days or have not even turned up for work on their first day. FBA is thankful for the excellent Indian management staff it does have however we have failed miserably to appoint more.

Note: FBA has a few foreigners working as volunteers, some of whom are in management. All Indian staff are paid and all foreigners are considered volunteers.

Attention on the immediate rather than the important: Doing business on the edge of Kolkata’s largest Red light area ensures that no day is ever boring. There is always a crisis looming either in the business itself or in the community. Attention therefore tends to be always on the immediate and often not what is important. Areas such as product development have not received the attention they deserve and it’s fair to say the business has suffered as a result. FBA is starting to pick up its game in this very important area but is late in doing so.

Other Lessons Learned

Business is hard work and doesn’t fit into a 40-hour week: Any business takes a lot to get going. It needs commitment from people who will go well beyond the call of duty. Anything less than that and it will be difficult to survive, especially in the context of the community in Sonagachhi.

Relationships get harder as the business grows: Back when FBA employed 20 and 30 and then 40 women everybody seemed to know everybody and they knew where the business was heading. With greater staff numbers, relationships and communication needs to be far more intentional than before. This is particularly important for FBA if it is to keep its values and identity.

Learn to celebrate the small things: Reaching sales targets and profit margins are things to celebrate. So is the first time a woman successfully threads a needle or is able to cut with a pair of scissors. Lots of small celebrations ensure a healthy working environment and community.

If a freedom business is growing then a slavery business is hurting:Two businesses directly opposed to one another living in the same community sooner or later are going to have conflict. It’s not nice when it happens even though it’s not a surprise. This is when God’s get to grant his peace amongst ongoing turmoil and uncertainty.

The ‘Sympathy Market’ will never lead to sustainable business: Like many Kingdom businesses in this part of the world FBA has had its fair share of sympathy sales. That is: people purchasing because they wanted to help the freedom story. We are eternally grateful for people who buy our product because they like FBA. However, although it’s okay to start with sympathy sales, real business cannot and should not dwell in that market space. Sustainable business can only be achieved when a quality product that people want to buy is produced and sold for a fair price and fair profit.

The word “HELP” is the best four-letter word ever: People want to help Kingdom businesses. Find out who should be helping and let them. Interestingly, God can use good people who are not following Him to help as much as much as people who do follow him. Sometimes these people have less baggage.

People are always more important than profit, but profit is important to business: 
Business should be about people not profit—absolutely. But without the profit, eventually there will be no jobs and no people. I believe it’s easier for business people to work in the NGO sector than it is for those who have spent years working for an NGO to then go and establish a business amongst the poor. Inevitably, many of those businesses are never sustainable.

Business leadership is not always found in those who are the most educated: Some of the best business ideas have from come from women who have never been to school, don’t know how old they are or when their birthday is. It’s important to work hard at creating an environment where everyone has a voice and chance to input and for them to know it is welcomed and appreciated.

It really hurts when people die: Every year staff die through disease, suicide and even murder. The celebration of new freedom sometimes is short lived and is devastating for the FBA community.

Make what people want to buy: I know this is really basic but I see this a lot. One of the most common mistakes in trying to do business amongst the poor is starting with a local product and trying to sell it. Sometimes that can work, often it doesn’t. The first question is not: “We have this product, will you buy it?” It should be, “What do you want, we’ll make it.”

Learn how Rome wasn’t built in a day: What takes 5 minutes to do and organize in the United States might take 4 hours to achieve in West Bengal. What can be achieved in a Day in the United States may take a whole month in West Bengal. Patience, patience, patience.

Learn to tell the story well: A good story is a powerful marketing tool. Freedom from prostitution and slavery helps build brand recognition, especially in a world that is beginning to wake up to the huge problem of sex trafficking. Huge care however needs to be taken. Individual freedom stories are owned by the women themselves and should only be told or published with their permission. They need to be educated about how easily a story can go from one side of the world to the other in a split second. In other words, once their story is on the Internet, their story is accessible to the world.

Corruption and integrity: Seeking to do Kingdom business in a culture where corruption and bribes are the way people operate is difficult to say the least. It is actually impossible to avoid paying bribes in totality because agents working on behalf of a business simply do their job and see it as a business expense. Over the years I have heard many views from Christians on whether it’s okay to pay bribes or not. FBA has a policy of not intentionally paying bribes and at times it has been very difficult to move forward without what we would consider divine intervention. Keeping business integrity is very important yet very difficult when bribery and corruption are commonplace.

Get good at something and then diversify and not before:
 Over the years FBA has been advised to diversify. FBA’s policy has been to make sure we get good at something before considering any diversification. Once we believe we can do something well we will look at a form diversification within our basic skill base, which at this stage is sewing. Always, the question we ask is: Will our women be capable of making this product?

Going from bags to t-shirts was natural because the basic skills were there (although to be honest developing t-shirts was an absolute nightmare for a while). The new t-shirt products could also be sold in the same market as our bags, which also made sense.

In the early days of the business FBA received enquiries for all sorts of things and spent enormous amounts of time developing products for the sake of one order. That was dumb and we need to learn how to say no. Do what you do and do it well.

  • Women are free from prostitution and are free to live dignified lives.
  • Women find ultimate freedom in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.
  • Work and worship is a shared experience by employees and at the same time observed by the surrounding community.
  • Transformation of the community: from the inside out and not from the outside in.
  • The majority of women still live in the same community where they once were literally sex slaves. They become the agents of freedom. They earn their money in a dignified way and spend within the same community supporting the local economy.
  • Business practices and products support the environment versus hurt it.
  • New freedom businesses are in operation both at source and destination (of the local sex trade).

Starting a business in the context of a red light area is always going to be hard work. When hiring employees most businesses look for skill and experience in return for a fair wage. FBA hires on the basis of a woman’s need for freedom regardless of skill or experience and seeks to pay them at industry standards even though their productivity is often less. Many of the women who work at FBA have never been to school, don’t know how old they are and don’t know when their birthday is. The majority have huge health problems which are often related to their former trade. Amazingly, most (although not all) learn how to sew export quality bags and t-shirts. Given the opportunity women who have been discarded by society and full of shame find hope and dignity in the context of a community that is far from perfect. Yet God’s healing is at work in hearts and minds as we work together day in and day out. Sustainable Kingdom business as an alternative to trafficking and prostitution has a strong case. If business can offer a few hundred women the choice of freedom then there can be choice for a few thousand and more. Business is able to provide opportunity for freedom both in the village (at the source) and in the brothel (at the destination).

This is an abbreviated copy of the FBA Business Profile first published in Appendix F of the Business as Mission Think Tank Report on BAM and Human Trafficking: A Business Takeover – Combating the Business of the Sex Trade with BAM, October 2013