"We believe that business can be a tool to bring freedom to those trapped in slavery. Our business IS about freedom. Every product we create is part of a woman’s freedom journey."
We first found The Loyal Workshop when looking for ethical, sustainable and beautiful leather goods over five years ago. Since then, we've been blown away by their work in tackling modern day slavery, visited their Kolkata workshop in the biggest red light district in Asia and shared their beautiful goods and story with our customers. The 'Stay True' collaboration is an effort to bring together Loyal's mission with our organic, fair trade Cause apparel to raise funds and awareness for covid-relief in Kolkata. Jacob Bang and Matthew Watson have designed the artwork to include many aspects of normal life for the ladies at the workshop. Last week, we chatted to The Loyal Workshop co-founder, Sarah Beisly, to find out how throwing a pandemic into an area of hardship and poverty really looks.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your role in The Loyal Workshop. How would you describe your mission and how it came to be? What drives you to do what you do?
Paul and I founded The Loyal Workshop 6.5 years ago. We believe that sex slavery is a human rights atrocity and we felt compelled to launch a new business that could create opportunities for women to exit the sex trade. We are still General Managers of the business and are currently working hard to empower our team of artisans to step up in this covid-19 crisis to lead their own business. We are motivated by a strong gut belief that all human beings are valuable and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. As we treat our staff in this way, we witness their beautiful transformation. When we first met [each of our team] in the Red Light Area, waiting for a customer, her shoulders were hunched forward, she couldn't make eye contact or hold a basic conversation about the weather. Now she holds her heads up high. She welcomes visitors at the door of our workshop and with a smile and a twinkle in her eye and says, 'Welcome to our business'. She is relaxed, cracks jokes and is even silly sometimes. All of this transformation makes the blood, sweat and tears totally worth it.
How has Covid-19 affected your team and Kolkata on the greater whole?
Lock-down in Kolkata saw that the workshop was closed for 4 months. Covid-19 has meant that for the first time in 6.5 years, the workshop has no foreigners working there. We initially thought that this would be a weakness. But we have been surprised and delighted to see our local team members rise up and take on new challenges. They are now running the workshop 5 days a week and are doing an excellent job.
Kolkata has opened back up, despite the virus showing no sign of slowing down. There have been massive disruptions to transportation and food sourcing, both of which have hiked the the prices of many goods and services. The price of staples like potatoes has tripled. This level of food inflation is crippling for the poor.
What does employment mean for your team?
Employment means stability in a volatile and changing world. But their place of work is much more than just that. The Loyal Workshop is a family, where we walk with one another through the ups and downs of life. They know that they belong. They know that they are loved. They can live and die with dignity.
How has lockdown affected your team?
Our women were very bored during lockdown and couldn't wait to get back to work. After all, there is not much to do in a tiny, one roomed house. But they were safe. And as we were able to pay their full wage during lockdown, they were well fed. It was difficult for them to watch their neighbours struggle to get by, as most people were without income during lockdown. The lockdown is over, but travelling to and from work continues to be difficult and exhausting. And the food prices will continue to cause stress for our staff.
What can be done to help the Loyal ladies, as well as people living on the poverty line?
Ensuring that our business is sustainable and can stand on its own two feet is vital. Just one sustainable business is not enough. Hundreds and thousands of new sustainable social businesses are required to empower people out of poverty. 2021 will be a year of famine in many countries, where aid will be necessary and essential. Beyond that, we need brave folk who can help start new social businesses, to make rebuilding and lasting change possible.
How can your Kiwi/International community help?
To support our women, please purchase a Loyal Workshop product. Each product purchased provides work for one woman. And is one step closer to our goal of being a sustainable business. To support The Loyal Workshop's neighbourhood, please consider purchasing a collab tee, as $10 from every tee goes towards our Covid recovery fund which will support the most vulnerable of the Bowbazar Red Light Area, in Kolkata.
What are some of your best memories with the Loyal team?
I simply love playing team building games with the staff. Sometimes one of our ladies laughs so hard, she has tears streaming down her face. Pure joy!
What are your favourite daily rituals, objects, happenings in Kolkata?
Drinking a terracotta cup of chai on the roadside, asking someone for directions when I get lost, watching life bubble up on the sidewalks, as I drive by in a old-fashioned tram, drinking strong coffee with cream, in the famous Indian Coffee House, where many activists in years gone by have sat, drank coffee, debated, dreamed and conspired.
Which part of Jacob Bang and Matthew Watson's design do you most identify with and why are these symbols important?
I love the portrait of Mother Theresa. She is an inspiration to me. The way she loved the person who was right in front of her. I will be practising that kind of service for the rest of my life.