Who Made Your Pants?

Gorgeous Pants. By women, for women.

Nerves? What nerves.. (a funder is due in not many minutes!)

Good morning, good morning!

And what a glorious day it is, the sun is shining, the ducks were quacking happily as I cycled pas Southampton Common duck pond on the way to work, and now I’m in heels – again – which means it’s a big day.

And it is. The John Paul Getty Junior Trust are coming to see us today. We have applied to them for just over £64k to pay part of our rent and wage bill for our first two years. Applying for funds is a long process generally, especially with big charitable funders. There’s usually a first stage application, which often goes to their board or trustees for shortlisting. Then there’s a fuller application, which is usually to be accompanied by things like our rules/constitution (in straight business this would be the Mem and Arts, the business’ governing document) and financial projections, and possibly extracts from our business plan. They often want a bio of each of our Committee members, and can ask for all kinds of other bits too. This generally all goes, again, to a meeting for discussion. And then, if you’re lucky, they ask to come and visit. It’s my understanding that also after a visit, a report is often made to the Board again, and then a decision taken – so this shows, I think, why applying for funds can take a long long time. We put our application to this fund in way back in September, were asked for our fuller application in early March, and here we are now.

So I’m just a bit nervous. But I’m wearing my lovely jewellery that was bought for me all the way from Afghanistan by one of our lovely women, which always grounds me. The women are all excited by the visit too – one told me she prayed for us last night that we would be lucky, and we have Somali rice and Welsh bara brith for lunch. I hope so. It would be such a lifeline to have this extra breathing space, and to know that we could take the pressure off the production a bit, to know that we could pay the rent.

But enough of that, my stomach is flipping all over the place so, let’s see, what else has been going on. I last wrote last week, after we had a visit from a tiny baby. Apparently whomadeyourpants? baby number 2 is scheduled to visit (with mum) at some point soon. We’ve been as busy as ever here, but it’s starting to be busy – doing the work, rather than busy – setting things up. Which feels great. The more we get our processes and procedures bedded in, the more people can get on with things without us helping them, which frees us so much time. And over the last week, things have been getting much much smoother.

And the pants, the pants! Quality is suddenly rocketing – the women are starting to understand the machines more intuitively, which means they are needing the teacher a bit less. We are really looking forward to being able to let the women get on without a teacher as it means we can run shifts when the teacher is not free. All in good time though. We’re very nearly out of pink fabric and waiting for samples of some new – which is very very exciting.

Also, I have had two great conversations with people who are going to come in and help with our next design, and some efficiency and process stuff. One is a 2nd year student who is going to come and do a month work experience with us in August, and the other is someone who has worked in product development all over the world after getting a degree in contour stuff. Both are passionate about gorgeous undies, and ethics too, so we are already getting along well and I’m really looking forward to meeting them both. In fact, I plan to visit the latter in Totnes, which I will get to with bike and train and make a long weekend of it. Lovely! In terms of timing, we’re hoping to host them both in August when we may be quiet here with school holidays hitting us – childcare is such a massive issue, and there’s no getting away from it.

Over the last few weeks I’ve also realised how much I have now come to rely on others. Della has been off for a few days and Aimee has been away. Both are in today and just knowing they are here makes me feel calmer. I can;t believe that I hadn;t actually planned to take on volunteers really – Della was suggested to me by a mutual friend, and Aimee volunteered after I gave a lecture to her class at Uni. It just hadn’t occurred to me that people would want to actually actively give up days to help, and so I was quite prepared to be doing everything myself. I am inordinately glad I am not so doing, and enormously grateful for their time and dedication. I know now that I could not be doing this alone, and find it quite hysterical that I thought I could . I had no idea!

In case you’ve not seen it elsewhere, we have had some great news – Lush have offered us £5k from their CharityPot after their visit to us last week. This will help us create case studies on each fo the women we work with so we can show people who makes their pants, but also they can form part of a CV, and can be used with work we hope to do with Refugee Action on really helping people to understand what life is like for refugees. There are so many misconceptions, and I really want to do something to break a few down. Half of the women we work with, for example, have no recourse to public funds. They get no benefits at all, so the idea that people are coming here and getting free money and free houses is somewhat flawed. But that’s a subject for another day.

And now, dear readers, I must bid you adieu. I have yet another trip to the loo to attend to(my nerves…) and last minute pre to do. More next week – and wish us luck!

Becky

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This is the part of my job that I love.

Let’s for a minute forget that printers and computers and internet connections seem destined to frustrate me forever, and look at what happened this morning.

I’m just back in the office after a typically boisterous and joyful meeting. But this meeting was a special one, an atypical one. Held at Southampton Voluntary Services, it was the ‘only women who come to this meeting will get jobs and you have to bring all your immigration and benefits information stuff and you have to be on time as we have loads to do meeting’.

15 women brought everything. Five others brought nearly everything. Only one woman was unable to come, which was a real shame as she’s lovely, and has two brilliant daughters, and really wants to work, but I hope to be able to work out a way of getting the information from her.

And the best part? The meeting started at 10 – and nearly everyone was there. Some were there before me!

It was deliciously chaotic – 24 adults, an uncountable number of children (they were under tables, running round, playing, so difficult to keep track of) a queue of pushchairs, clattering teaspoons as heaps of sugar were dumped into tea. The lovely adviser from the Neighbourhood Advice Centre and I took to waving our arms about if we needed to be heard above the laughter and chatter, and thrillingly, amazingly, it’s sorted. Copies of all the immigration documentation we need have been taken, and those that didn’t bring any should be able to come and see me on Monday. It looks like there should be little danger of anyone’s benefits being hit – we’re going to start off with just three hours a week per woman, which will give only a tiny income – but enough to call their own, and to give them new experiences through earning it.

I’m taken aback by how relieved I am. Months of work – and I was in the room with the women that will be making YOUR pants! And mine! And theirs!

It was lovely to be able to say at the end that the English language assessments will be starting during the week of the 20th April, and have a real firm date set. The women were glad to hear that too – we’ve been talking for almost a year and I’m sure it feels like it’s been a long time coming. The issue of childcare popped up again and will continue to I’m sure – it is a nightmare trying to work out how women can work when childcare costs so much, and there are so few places anyway. The hope is that some sort of informal arrangement can be worked out for the women that have little ones, that they can share between them. This caused a bit of concern at first but it sounds like three hours should be mangeable. I wish I could do more to help, but I can’t.

And now there’s a pre holiday rush to get through. I’ve a week off from Tuesday 7th to the 14th inclusive, and so have a day and a half in the office before then. In which time I need to complete risk assessments and a contract to go to the organisation funding the training, get the remaining immigration papers sorted, let the English trainer know who will be attending (they, thankfully, will take over all the liaison with the women over that now) finalise my own job description and the business plan, and somehow find a working printer. For a brief few hours yesterday I had a laserjet which was lovely until the curse of Becky hit it and it stopped working with an error no-one had seen before.

But that’s a detail. Today has been brilliant. One of those real landmark days. Here’s to many more. Hooray!

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Feeling hopeful….

Since December, I have been trying to support the women the project is working with in understanding what happens to their benefits when they work.  The thought that someone might be so keen to work they don’t realise they could lose benefits terrifies me. But getting calculations done, and working out which benefits each women gets and the impact of working.. it’s a minefield.  The benefits trap in bonkers, and the system sometimes impenetrable. And that’s without even getting into conversations about immigration status, which I am learning a lot about very fast. But I am hoping there is light at the end of the tunnel.

We have been awarded £11,550 from the European Social Fund to train the women, in English and then in sewing.  We have to start invoicing for this money by mid May else it goes back into the pot and we have to bid again. Which takes a while. And would delay us.

So. Today, I had a fantastic conversation with a Neighbourhood Advice Centre, and they have been brilliant. We have a meeting set up with them to go through it all, in one place, at one time, and I have started the process of getting in touch with the women.

I can’t describe how convoluted and complicated this all is. Contacting the women by phone is hit and miss, and many speak little English so calls have to be remade when there is a partner or English speaking child around. Trying to explain where a venue is can be really hard when the person speaks little English, or is new to the area. Some of the women have had no information back in response to the forms they sent in, and so we are still in the same sort of place we were four months ago. But this has to stop – we cannot afford to lose that money and we need to make a proper start. I think I might have been too accommodating, and perhaps I need to be more firm – todays’ calls have included the words, ‘The meeting is very very very important, and only women who come can get training and jobs. And we have to start at EXACTLY ten o’clock as the adviser has to leave at 11.30.’ Punctuality is viewed differently by some of the women, and so I really hope they understand and the meeting can start on time.

I’m hoping that by the end of the meeting, there will be a clear idea of who can work, for how many hours, and what impact that will have on their benefits. A lot of benefits are sort of gateways – if you get X they you can also get Housing Benefit, kind of thing. The thought that someone might inadvertently lose the gateway benefit, and then their housing as well brings me out in a cold sweat. But I am feeling hopeful.

It’s galling to think that these women are so very keen to work and there seem to be so many obstacles in the way. The systems are just not set up to help marginalised people take the first step. I’ve had to learn that being angry won’t help, but using that anger to make changes will.

And here’s a really galling thing. The fabulous Advice Centre that’s coming to help us is being closed down. It’s Council funded and works well because it’s in an area of high unemployment and economic inactivity, lots of refugees and other often excluded groups. The people who use it like it because it’s local – they don’t have to go into town, where many of them report feeling very nervous – imagine how you might feel if you were in the middle of a big city in Afghanistan, or somewhere in Africa. Everyone looks different, the clothes are different, the behaviour, the social mores and norms, the language, even if you speak some, is so fast you can’t keep up. It’s little wonder that people prefer to stay with people they know, in enclaves they are familiar with. So the Advice Centre has been brilliant. Close, convenient, friendly. But the funding is going. It breaks my heart.

I really hope that by the end of this, I understand more about the benefits system so I can maybe learn to give advice, or bring people into our building regularly to do so. I refuse to accept that our civilised society wilfully excludes certain groups from routes to progress and betterment. But in the meantime, we need to get making pants. Which I hope can start in the summer. Samples will be trialled by all of us in the co-operative, and we might even ask some of our friends to try the sizing out for us. So if you’re up for some wonky seamed trial run pants…watch this space.

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It’s Friday, Friday, Friday

One of my friends sings a little song on a Friday. It’s tuneful delight, sometimes with ArmDancingTM, expressing her joy at the end of the working week. In my last job, the weeks were, towards the end, untaxing, so there was no great relief in a Friday. And now my working week is not so clearly bookended, I sometimes think I’ll have to make up my own song. ‘It’s a day off, a day off, a day off’.

This project is about so much more than me wanting to make ethical pants, and the women that I work with often find it easier to meet at the weekend. Their children can be safe with family and they can come along knowing the little ones are being looked after elsewhere. I love that whomadeyourpants? has taken over so much of my life – it’s that thing, find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life – but I do find myself sometimes wondering when my last day off was. Tomorrow will be a day off. It has to be. After finding myself trapped in the bathroom last night, and having to call my lodger (who was upstairs) and my brother (who was in his own house) to free me, DIY must be done.

So, this Friday, I can sing the Friday song, as it is the end of my week, though I will work a little bit over the weekend as I heard today about a fund which suits and has a deadline on Monday. What has happened this week? Well, the internet connection in my house has done it’s best to snap my sanity, what with dropping out seemingly at random, when it likes. I have swapped the router, checked the phone line, tried different laptops. All with the help of not one, not two, not three but six computery clever types. It’s workign now.. fingers crossed, eh?

The probable highlight of my week was a call from JobCentrePlus. Frequently slated, I know a lot of people have little time for them. But the support they are offering this project is amazing. Three benefits advisers can come out to a venue and see, we hope, 39 women in one day to do Better off at Work calculations and work out which of the women can do what work, for how long. They will send me forms to disseminate first, so that each woman can fill in all her information and return it to them before the appointment, and then on the day they will be able to maximise the number of people the advisers see. Can you imagine how much easier this will make things than trying to persuade 39 women, many of whom are scared to ask about benefits in case they lose them just for asking, to go to a place at the far end of town, and talk to an adviser who knows nothing about why they are asking? That the advisers will all be briefed and ready to help is sign to me of a real commitment from JobCentrePlus.

I’ve been told that the groups whomadeyourpants? aims to engage with are the same groups other agencies want to work with, but it’s just amazing when that tangible proof happens. It makes me think my original idea must be on the right track, and that is pleasing. And it wonderful that other agencies want to support women in general and this project in particular. So many of the women I am talking to desperately want to work, they don’t want to be at home all day, they want their own time and space and to do something outside the home. I work at home most of the time while I’m setting this up and I’d go absolutely crackers if I didn’t have a walk out every day, or a neighbour to chat to. People like people, we like to talk and be sociable.

For many people, the Friday song heralds a trip to a hotbed of sociability, the pub. I feel drawn to the chat and comfort of my friends tonight, but I’m also, frankly, shattered. There’s a door to fix tomorrow, and a tap, lightbulbs to buy, laundry to do and sleep to catch up on, as well as funding to apply for. The pub will be there another day.

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