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Egg Toast and Freedom

I (Joel) arrived at the workshop a little early this morning and thought I would treat myself to a second breakfast. I put my bag down in the office and began the short walk to get my egg-toast. The thing about The Loyal Workshop is that we are situated right in the heart of the red light area. So, stepping out the front door, I walked past a large brothel just a few metres from our doorstep. On any given day, at any given time, five to twelve women can be found sitting outside this brothel on plastic stools waiting for customers.

As I walked past, I overheard two women talking. One was visibly upset, saying to the other, “Amader jiboner daam nei.”

Translated this essentially means, “Our lives have no value.”

I kept walking, but her words were stuck running round my head over and over again. I really wanted to offer some kind of reassurance to her, but in that moment what could be said that wouldn’t first sound like a platitude or a token band-aid to a weeping wound? I didn’t agree, yet I could understand her. She, and those working alongside her, are exploited for a few rupees every single day and are then tossed aside. I regularly walk past at various times throughout the day and see customers approaching them. Sometimes I overhear these men whittling down the price of the service they are purchasing as if they are buying vegetables from the market. Explicit and incessant exposure to this communicates a very particular message about a human being’s perceived value.

In the Loyal office, there is a green folder which is stuffed full of papers. Each piece of paper represents a woman working in the red light area who has come into The Loyal Workshop seeking a job. These women often break down and cry as they share a small piece of their story and plead for help. They are desperate for an alternative way to provide for their families. The names of the individuals in this folder represent women who are have a desire to leave the exploitation that they experience in the sex trade. They come to our door because they have seen the gradual transformation that has occurred in the lives of the Loyal artisans who also once sat on plastic stools outside of brothels, waiting for customers to purchase their services.

Over my seven years here at Loyal, I have come to understand that many of the artisans who I call sisters and aunties would have also previously said similar things about their own lives feeling void of value. When I feel hopeless about the situations outside our doorstep, I think about what has happened in the lives of these courageous and resilient women inside the workshop. Here, we are intent on communicating that their lives have real value. They once felt trapped and unseen, but since coming to work here they have discovered their life does have value. In fact, it is something we physically turn in our seat and repeat to one another frequently as part of our office mantras. “My life has a lot of value. Your life has a lot of value. We love you.” They can work safely and creatively and with respect. There is a future for them and their children beyond exploitation.

The stinging reality of forging an alternative way in the red light area is that we can only offer employment to women choosing to leave the sex trade when the business is making a healthy profit. The profit we do make is not divided among shareholders nor is it put back in the pockets of the founders. Rather, The Loyal Workshop’s profit is reinvested into the business in order to create jobs for the women whose names fill our green folder. That is what we mean when we say, “Buy Loyal. Fight Slavery.” It’s not just a catchy phrase. It is a genuine invitation into transforming the neighbourhood.

One day, I hope to see those two women no longer sitting outside on plastic stools waiting for customers to come and abuse them. Instead, I hope for the day that I get to see them working alongside me making beautiful products. I long for the day they repeat and believe the mantra, “My life has a lot of value. Your life has a lot of value. We love you.” 

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