clock menu more-arrow no yes
A woman at a sewing machine holding a sign that reads “I Made Your Bag” Photo: Malia Designs

Filed under:

How Can Companies Help Human Trafficking Survivors? Give Them Jobs

Trafficking victims and those at risk are making everything from jeans to jewelry.

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

For most Liam Neeson fans, the film Taken marked yet another chance to see the rugged actor play action hero. But for Outland Denim CEO James Bartle, watching the 2008 thriller turned out to be life-changing. The movie chronicles a man determined to rescue his daughter from sex traffickers. And though there are far more fight sequences in Taken than information about human trafficking, what Bartle did learn from the film inspired him to dig deeper. The Australian not only found out all he could about trafficking, but also traveled to Southeast Asia, where sex slavery and forced labor thrive.

“When I was there, it became real,” Bartle says. “I witnessed a young 13-year-old for sale.”

To combat slavery in countries like Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma, Bartle recognized that he needed to provide a path out of poverty for the young people most at risk. So, while managing a steel fabrication business, he launched what he called the “Denim Project” in 2011 to give vulnerable girls and women a sustainable career and living wage. Bartle set up pedal-press sewing machines and hot-coal irons in Cambodian villages. Then his project grew into Outland Denim, complete with a training and production facility and a flagship store in Australia. Outland made its official launch in 2016.

Outland Denim CEO James Bartle.
Bartle speaking at a human trafficking panel discussion in Los Angeles in October.
Photo: Outland Denim

The company recently landed Caulfeild Apparel Group as its North American distributor, and last month Bartle and his team traveled to Los Angeles to raise awareness about sex slavery and forced labor, enlisting actress Jaime King to spread the word. The visit coincided with nonprofit anti-trafficking organization A21’s “Walk for Freedom” to end human trafficking.

While it’s not unusual for fashion brands to donate a portion of proceeds to a charitable organization or cause, the 21st century has seen a number of clothing and accessories companies fight trafficking by training and employing the women affected. In addition to Outland Denim, “profit-for-purpose” companies like Purpose Jewelry, Malia Designs, and Elegantees are leading the charge.

Bartle says that giving women the opportunity to become skilled workers earning a fair wage is crucial because many trafficking victims are lured into slavery with false promises of employment.

“They’ll move to another country to get this job that’s been promised, and they get there and are held as a slave,” he says. “We had a girl promised a job at a hotel in Malaysia. They took her into Malaysia and then locked her in jail for being an illegal immigrant. Other girls get stuck in brothels, and it’s hell for them.”

Outland partners with non-governmental organizations to find trafficking survivors or young people likely to be enslaved. The company teaches them all about garment work as well as life skills, such as budgeting. Outland currently employs 31 seamstresses, and two Khmer and Australian management staff apiece in Cambodia. Another ten staffers work in Australia. Roughly 70 percent of Outland’s workers are experienced garment workers while about 30 percent are unskilled. Workers in both groups may have been formerly enslaved or are at risk, according to the company. The novices start out by learning to sew straight lines. Eventually, they learn to make the entire product, a pair of jeans. The seamstresses use a variety of machinery, including the overlocker, single-needle machine, and bar tack, allowing them to experience how a pair of jeans is made from start to finish.

Bartle settled on jeans as a product because of their sheer popularity.

“Nearly every human being in the Western world has jeans, and you get a lot of brand loyalty,” he says.

Outland uses organic cotton and vegetable dyes to make its handcrafted jeans at $195 per pair and aims for zero exploitation in all parts of the supply chain, Bartle says. Because the fashion industry is a notorious environmental polluter, Outland has embraced a sustainable manufacturing process that includes using upcycled jean pockets and recycled packing materials.

Outland Denim sells handcrafted jeans made by workers vulnerable to being ensnared by human traffickers. Photo: Outland Denim

In addition to hiring vulnerable women, the company partners with A21 to raise awareness about sex slavery and forced labor. The organization has put posters in airports to find missing girls. Each year, up to 800,000 people are trafficked across transnational borders globally, according to the US State Department. Of those, 80 percent are female, and 70 percent of them are trafficked into sex slavery.

Aware that human trafficking is an international crisis with victims everywhere from the United States to Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia, Bartle hopes to expand Outland’s reach globally. Some organizations, such as International Sanctuary, the nonprofit arm of Purpose Jewelry, are already working with trafficking survivors domestically and abroad.

Stephanie Pollaro started Purpose Jewelry in 2007 for the same reasons Bartle launched Outland Denim. She wanted to lift girls and women out of poverty so they wouldn’t live in bondage. Today, her organization has four sanctuaries for women affected by trafficking: in Mumbai, India; Kampala, Uganda; Tijuana, Mexico; and Orange County, California. The US State Department estimates that up to 17,500 people are trafficked into America each year, challenging the idea that trafficking only happens abroad. And that number doesn’t include the people who are trafficked within the nation’s borders, says Wendy Dailey, president and cofounder of International Sanctuary and Purpose Jewelry, which sells bracelets, necklaces, rings, and earrings at a range of price points. The latter sells its pieces through its website, social media networks, and trunk shows.

In Orange County, trafficking survivors work in International Sanctuary’s distribution center where online orders are packed and shipped, Dailey says. Having a job helps to reintegrate the women back into society. Internationally, her company partners with rescue organizations that provide trafficking survivors shelter and basic emergency services.

A Purpose Jewelry necklace in a box. Photo: Purpose Jewelry

“From that point, the social workers come to us... and we provide thorough training of jewelry-making as the conduit to be able to build relationships, establish trust, and to create a safe environment where they can learn from each other.”

International Sanctuary chose jewelry as its product staple rather than, say, clothing, because Pollaro made jewelry as a hobby.

“It was a natural thing to be able to provide classes,” Dailey says.

Most of the women don’t have jewelry-making skills but master the process after three months of training. The women start out with simple projects, like beading jewelry with no particular pattern.

“Eventually, they do metalsmithing and hammering and work with torches and machinery,” Dailey says. “It’s a really exciting process.”

Many transform into talented artisans who go on to teach their jewelry-making techniques to other novices. The goal, however, isn’t to turn these women into master jewelers, but to give them a way to be autonomous.

“When they have a paycheck and financial independence, they can go on and support themselves or their family and children,” Dailey says. “They’re actually able to create a future for themselves with jewelry-making. Many are pursuing higher education. One is in her final year of law school. Others are transitioning into the workplace in their community. They’re re-integrating into society.”

Malia Designs in Chicago is a fashion brand that has worked to counteract human trafficking before it was trendy. It began in 2005 after one co-founder, Lia Valerio, traveled to Cambodia following a stint in the Peace Corps.

“She was really moved by her experience, and she fell in love with the people,” says marketing director Lucia Ruth. “She became aware of human trafficking and wondered, ‘How could I make some sort of impact over in Cambodia?’”

A model poses with a Malia Designs handbag made by workers in Cambodia. Photo: Malia Designs

Valerio met with fair trade artisan groups and decided to launch a brand to employ vulnerable women. Today, Malia Designs sells a wide-range of products, from handbags and wallets to fine silk and T-shirts.

“One of our most popular products are our messenger bags,” Ruth says. “We work with a bit of recycled and upcycled materials, and we offer those in a variety of those materials and also in different sizes. It’s super functional and has been a best-seller for years.”

Twelve years ago, the public wasn’t as informed about human trafficking as it is today, Ruth says. But Malia Designs attracted consumers who simply liked their handbags, which are sold online and through retail partners.

“Awareness has grown quite a bit over the past decade,” Ruth says. “There’s this idea that fashion can be a force for good, for a positive change.”

Unlike Purpose Jewelry and Outland Denim, Malia Designs doesn’t directly work with women who’ve been trafficked. Instead, the company partnered with three different artisan groups that are woman-owned or woman-led, Ruth says. In turn, the artisan groups employ Cambodians who’ve been marginalized in some way.

“A lot are disabled,” Ruth says. “Some are injured due to landmines in Cambodia. Some are very vulnerable because of their lack of economic opportunities. We also work with the remote village population.”

Members of all of these populations are likely to be trafficked, according to Ruth. The artisan collectives employ 250 to 300 of such individuals each year. But it can take a month to several months for the artisan groups to train them to be garment-makers.

A Malia Designs garment worker with her child.
A Malia Designs garment worker with her child.
Photo: Malia Designs

Mainly, Malia wants to give these women long-term, sustained employment, she says. They work from home, in workshops, or oversee quality control for the company. Some are now veterans, working as artisans for as long as eight years. Others have stepped away to care for young children and then returned. In addition to giving women work, Malia Designs also donates to anti-trafficking groups, such as Damnok Toek, a non-governmental organization that serves Cambodian children and their families.

While Malia Designs and Outland Denim target girls and women in Cambodia, Elegantees serves at-risk people in Nepal. Katie Martinez, who attended New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, took a world affairs class there 10 years ago that exposed her to weighty topics like genocide and human trafficking.

“That gave me a whole different perspective on things like prostitution,” she says. “A lot of people that are prostitutes aren’t doing it by choice. These women — they are just vulnerable because they just wanted to provide for their child. When I was in New York and a student at FIT, I was broke and desperate to make my dreams come true. I saw myself in these women. I was a very vulnerable 18-, 19-year-old. Anything could have happened to me.”

Martinez would later meet a Nepalese activist who has rescued thousands of girls from the Nepal-India border, she says.

“He has a whole team of people doing his work,” she says. “They bring them back into Nepal and teach theam how to prevent it from happening again. His main objective is to eliminate as much poverty as possible. I talked to him and realized I could use my business as a way to employ women.”

Initially, she figured that Elegantees, established in 2010, could donate proceeds to help trafficking victims. She then realized that she could hire Nepalese women themselves to make the products, which include flowing dresses and flouncy shirts in bright colors with ruffles. The clothing is available on the company’s website as well as at 40 boutiques in the US, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand.

Today, Elegantees prides itself for paying workers up to three times Nepal’s minimum wage. Martinez says giving them the opportunity to be gainfully employed has been life-changing. Some women are ostracized by their families after being rescued from traffickers, she says. But after one of her employees started sending money home to support her family, they welcomed her again, and the relationship was restored.

A woman in a red dress. Photo: Elegantees

Elegantees currently employs 30 women in its facility in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital and center of trade. Martinez hopes to one day open facilities across the country. Should Elegantees get bigger, she plans to hire more women and to fund rescue operations in the region.

Although profit-for-purpose fashion brands all want to be successful, their leaders say they’re not interested in having consumers make a “pity purchase” to support their efforts.

“Our goal is to have well-designed, fashion-forward products that people would want to purchase, and then the fact that it’s fair trade empowering women is an added bonus,” says Lucia Ruth of Malia Designs.

She says its customers are drawn to both the products and the company’s social mission.

Wendy Dailey of International Sanctuary feels similarly. She says customers comment on how beautiful the pieces in the Purpose Jewelry line are.

“A pity purchase isn’t going to be sustainable for the girls and the survivors,” she says. “The strength of the brand is going to allow us to transform lives. As far as being a strong brand — that’s really what we’re after.”

This piece has been updated to clarify the makeup of Outland Denim's workforce and details of their partnership with A21.

Farewell From Racked

Best of Racked

Best of Racked Essays

Best of Racked

Best of Racked Funny Stuff