In the heart of Bow Bazar, Kolkata, there is a concrete building that, like many of the surrounding buildings, is about 100 years old. This building overlooks India’s second largest red-light district where an estimated 1,500-2,000 women are trapped in the sex trade.
If you were to enter this building, it’s likely you’d hear a faint sound. On making your way to the second floor, you’d be able to tell that the sound is a happy one — women laughing, singing, chatting. You’d also hear the hum of a laser cutter machine in the background and perhaps even the rhythmic thud of dancing feet. If you continued to follow the sound, you’d find yourself in Loyal Workshop – accompanied by seventeen courageous women (and a couple of epic Kiwis too).
Although not connected by blood, there is no doubt this group is a family. These women, now free from their past and earning a decent living wage, were once trapped, working in the surrounding red-light area.
They are now artisans at Loyal Workshop — a freedom business that helps women escape the sex industry by providing alternative employment. These women create sustainable and ethical leather goods that go on to be sold here in Aotearoa and around the world.
The Loyal Workshop is a company founded by two brilliant Kiwis: Sarah and Paul Beisly.
Dedicated to fighting modern day slavery, the dream of Loyal began to form in 2002. The dream became a business, as Sarah and Paul learned to speak Bangla, sourced ethical, sustainable suppliers and moved from New Zealand to Kolkata. In this time, they worked to gain the trust of five women. Spending two years in the red-light district, they formed friendships and found ways to help them leave the sex industry. By May 2014, they had found an appropriate space and The Loyal Workshop opened for trade. The five women became Loyal’s first employees — artisans who now create beautiful ethical leather goods to be sold around the world.
You might have seen some of these leather goods for sale in Crave. On the wall between Little Lato and the Toybox, there are a number of beautifully handcrafted satchels, wallets, belts and purses. We (the Crave Collective) are big supporters of Loyal. As well as selling their goods — with every cent of every sale going back to Loyal — we are lucky to be involved in a number of ways.
The connection between Loyal and Crave dates back long before either business had begun. The Beislys are old friends of both Nigel and Blue, and, like any great community, have since connected to many others in the Crave Collective. When we found out what they were planning to create we were more than a little excited.
The artisans at Loyal have created a number of beautiful, bespoke items for us. They collaborated with Freeset — another Freedom business — to create the aprons worn by the Crave café crew.
They are also the artisans who create the leather wristbands for the Annual Easter Camp. This camp hosts around 5,000 teens, who each take home a wristband after the camp is done. Stamped with the theme of the camp and the Loyal logo, the wristbands aren’t only a camp memento, they help raise awareness for Loyal’s cause.
There’s been a number of fundraisers and talks held at Crave in the past, but perhaps one of the coolest ways we’re involved is in visiting the workshop itself. Meeting the women, hearing their stories and experiencing the ‘epicness’ of the workshop is like nothing else. Some would even say the experience is life changing. It certainly was for Anaïs Cottle.
When Anaïs was thirteen, she and her siblings moved to Kolkata with their parents — Nigel and Cathie — for two months. She remembers distinctly how happy, lovely and smiley the people of Kolkata were, especially in contrast to the people back home in New Zealand, who seemed to have so much more.
But it was the women of Loyal Workshop that had the biggest impact on her.
“On first sight I was surprised — in my mind I was thinking they’d all be in their twenties or thirties, but one of them had to at most have been eighteen. She was very young, and she’d been in the industry for quite a few years.”
Anaïs was surprised by just how different each woman and her story was. Although understandable, she is the first to admit her naivety.
“I understood the concept, but at that age, not the entirety. These women, they literally had no other options. We spent that Christmas in the middle of a red-light district, surrounded by people who were sleeping on the street. Meanwhile on Instagram and Facebook, everyone was posting photos of their presents. It blew my mind. The contrast was so real in that moment. I know I changed. I grew up a lot in that two months.”
Anaïs has now been to the workshop twice and is going again next January. Visiting Kolkata has cemented her decision to become a nurse. Her goal, once qualified, is to live and work in Kolkata for at least a year.
Images clockwise from top, artisans at work, Anaïs in Bow Bazar, the Oscar Card Wallet, the Rosa Tote.
Many members of the Crave Collective have visited the workshop. Some journey alone, others go as part of a group that visits at least once a year. One of these groups is going over this October to help rebuild the roof and fix anything else the old building needs done.
The future of Loyal is bright. Each woman has a different situation and given the complexities, there’s no quick fix to freedom. But Loyal isn’t in a rush. Each woman deserves, at the very least, the time. Loyal has grown from five women to seventeen in just five years. That’s seventeen women, free and full of hope.
Come in and check out the new Rosa Tote and Oscar Card Wallet – named after Rosa Parks and Oscar Romero – which are part of the new “Activist Range”. Each product has been named after someone who inspired Loyal Workshop with their social justice activism and advocacy for the poor and marginalised.
As stated on the Loyal website, “We ask you to stand with us, to show these women the loyal support they deserve. Buy a satchel. But even more than that, become an advocate for the woman who made your satchel. Her name is inside on the pocket and you can find out more about her on our meet the artisan page.”