Wellington-based underwear company Nisa employs former refugees in its workshop, helping them to be financially independent while also providing fulfilling work. Founder Elisha Watson, who was previously a lawyer, was motivated to start the business after working as a refugee resettlement volunteer and seeing the difficulties they often face with finding employment in New Zealand. Here, Elisha talks to us about the skills they learn and how consumers can vote with their wallets.
How do you plan to grow Nisa from here?
We are forced to grow or else we will die! We have focussed on product development for so long, now is the time to switch to marketing more intensively. We have had such amazing press coverage so far we haven't had to do much work on that front, which has been a blessing, but there is definitely more work to be done!
We also have a few collaborations in the works with illustrators to create bespoke prints for our undies. Creative collaborations are so fulfilling and are great for getting the word out about what we are doing.
What skills are the women gaining from working at Nisa, and how are those transferrable to other environments?
Our employees are taught the tools of the trade. None of them have come from industrial sewing backgrounds, though they did have home sewing skills. Our big challenge has been up-skilling them, but this is great for giving them a boost for their future career in NZ. They learn a lot more than sewing, however. For many of them, they have never caught public transport before and working forces them to move about independently. Their English absolutely takes off after a few months, and we are really proud of them. For our employees who come from more traditional backgrounds, this is their very first job! So general employment experience is invaluable.
Who is teaching your staff the tools of the trade?
Our production manager, Averil, has 20 years experience in the garment industry and she is responsible for training our employees. It was really hard to find someone with her factory experience and interpersonal skills. The skill-base in NZ is definitely dying, and it means it's a real struggle to produce in NZ.
How important is it to you that garment workers are paid a living wage?
It is so important to us that Nisa helps them on their path to financial independence. We are just getting off the ground at the moment, but it would be the dream to move to a living wage as soon as possible.
How do you think other textiles companies, both locally and abroad, can be encouraged to pay their workers a living wage?
More accountability! Ask the person who is at the end of the chain to provide evidence about the conditions of the people working further up. Out of sight is out of mind. Demand to see!
What are the key ways that the underwear business can be more ethical, and how are you doing that with Nisa?
Ethical manufacturing is the heart of our business. Most underwear is hideously cheap because it was produced in hideous and exploitative conditions overseas. You pay more for a pair of Nisa underwear, but that is because people working in NZ have protections that overseas garment workers could only dream of.
How can you encourage consumers to spend more on locally-made and ethically-produced underwear?
There are very few incentives to produce in NZ, as our minimum wage laws make it quite unattractive for bigger companies. The only change that is possible is from the consumer. If the consumer cares about labour standards and the quality of life of the people who make the garments, it is totally within their power to support businesses that care about that and punish those who don't.
How do you practise responsible consumerism in other aspects of your life?
I am a 'animinamalist', meaning that I eat animals and animal products as little as I can. I also try to limit my consumption of things and spend more on experiences.