- Associated Press - Saturday, February 11, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - People tuning in to HSN might think they’re supporting a good cause by purchasing a lapis bracelet from Bajalia International Group, an Orlando company that employs female artisans in developing countries like Afghanistan and India.

What shoppers don’t see on their TV screens is the sometimes ruthless business arrangements between Bajalia and its artisans, the company’s history of short-changing its craftswomen or the checkered financial past of the company’s founder and CEO.

On air at HSN, Debbie Farah is portrayed as a savior for women in poor and developing nations who produce the natural gemstone necklaces and beaded bracelets that Farah’s company sells online and on HSN, the popular television retailer based in St. Petersburg.

The videos and promotional materials for Bajalia say Farah has created thousands of jobs for women in countries with histories of unequal rights for women. Bajalia’s website claims that by buying its handcrafted jewelry, consumers are helping ensure female artisans are making living wages in workplaces free of exploitation.

Bajalia is so much more than beautiful jewelry,” Farah says in one video, and in another she strides along a dirt path with a dozen barefoot women in India. “It’s jewelry that’s changing the world. One piece of jewelry changes everything for a woman, globally.”

However, Farah is accused by vendors and former employees of exploiting the vulnerable women she claims to champion. They say Bajalia owes numerous women and nonprofit organizations thousands of dollars for jewelry made for the company for which they were never paid.

“Honestly, it’s hard to watch the Home Shopping Network and see how they promote her,” said Jenny McGee, who runs the Starfish Project, a nonprofit that helps female victims of human trafficking in Asia find jobs. McGee said Bajalia owes women that Starfish supports nearly $20,000 for their work.

Vendors say they have repeatedly sought payment from Farah, only to be ignored or berated by phone or email. One vendor hired a collections agency, but others say they had to eat their losses because there’s little international vendors can do to force payment from an American company.

Farah, when questioned by the Tampa Bay Times in a series of interviews, admits she owes many of these women and organizations money and said she would pay them, but didn’t say when.

The business appears to be paying off for Farah, 58, who rents a five-bedroom, five-bathroom home with an ornate fountain in the front yard in an affluent part of Winter Park. She drives a Lexus SUV and mingles regularly at high-profile charity events on the Orlando social scene. She has won numerous business awards, including the “150 Women Who Shake the World” list compiled by Newsweek and the Daily Beast.

She also has a troubled financial history that includes felony charges for writing worthless checks, a bankruptcy and at least two home foreclosures.

“I remember, out of nowhere Debbie would come in bragging about the new designer clothes she bought. She’d just moved into this big house in Winter Park and bought a Lexus, but we wouldn’t pay the women who made the jewelry,” said Lirio Andrejcisk Drayton, who worked as a designer for Bajalia in 2012. “At the same time, we’d be getting these emails and phone calls from women in other countries begging to be paid for their orders.”

HSN has been featuring Bajalia products on air and online since 2011, but HSN officials say they were never aware of a problem between the jewelry company and its vendors.

Some retail experts find that hard to believe.

“This can’t be news to HSN,” Jeff Green, president of a national retail consulting firm, said about the claims against Bajalia. “The question is, do they continue to support a vendor that’s making them money, or do the socially responsible thing?”

Bajalia pays artisans $8 to $20 for some of the handmade necklaces and bracelets with lapis gemstones from the Middle East or beads from Nepal. Then Bajalia sells many of those items for $300 or more on HSN.

“We believe wholeheartedly in the mission to empower women and take these allegations very seriously,” said Brad Bohnert, spokesman for HSN, which has temporarily removed Bajalia products from its website and on-air segments while the company does an internal review.

The review was prompted by questions from a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

“Every good and strong business person has had failures and will continue to have failures in order to be redeemed,” Farah told the Times. “My goal has always been to help women with my store and through the passion and drive I have for them.”

But that’s of little help to Bakht Nazira, who employed more than 50 women in her hometown just outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, to make necklaces and bracelets for Bajalia. Nazira said she and her staff worked through fasting time at Ramadan to get a large order to Farah for an HSN show. But she hasn’t seen a cent from that last $70,000 order she filled for Bajalia in 2014, a life-changing amount of money for her and her employees in Afghanistan.

“This is not easy for me,” Nazira said while wiping away tears during a Skype interview with the Times. “I was so sad and so scared that something would happen to my family and it would be because of me and my business.”

Nazira met Farah in 2005 through a U.S. nonprofit organization called BPeace while Farah was traveling to Afghanistan to mentor female business owners. Nazira was running her business with her brother and husband, and they employed other Afghani women to make scarves, dresses and jewelry. Business was going well enough for her to open a storefront in Kabul.

“I worked really hard with my family to start this business. I wanted to do this work and it was my goal to work with women, because a lot of women have a hard time finding work in Afghanistan,” Nazira said.

When it was announced that Bajalia would sell jewelry on HSN in 2011, Nazira’s name appeared in a news release at the top of a list of vendors who “benefited” from Bajalia. Nazira and her brother would be featured during segments on HSN for years to come.

The business arrangement worked well for a while, Nazira said.

When Nazira’s husband was awarded political asylum in the United States, she worked with her brother so the business could continue once she settled in America. Upon hearing this news, Farah persuaded Nazira to delay her trip to the United States for two weeks so the two could meet in Afghanistan to discuss the future of the business arrangement, Farah said. This was potentially dangerous for Nazira, who couldn’t leave her home without escort by a male family member.

“I should have been over there (in the United States) with my kids,” Nazira said. “Debbie would say, ‘You are my sister. We’re going to work together for a long time.’ I trusted her.”

Bajalia was requesting larger orders from Nazira to sell on air on HSN, but the payments stopped coming.

In June 2014, Nazira said she tried to tell Farah it was too hard on her employees to complete a large order of thousands of necklaces, bracelets and earrings during fasting time for Ramadan, but Bajalia needed the order for HSN.

“We tried to tell her that it was too hard on the people who are fasting,” Nazira said.

When the shipment arrived in the United States, Farah said the jewelry was damaged or in poor shape.

“The quality was so bad that we had to scrounge our office for extra that we had from previous shows to supplement,” said Barika Poole, the operations project manager at Bajalia at the time. “HSN had a very specific and thorough inspection and quality process. If something doesn’t pass inspection, we can’t sell it.”

Poole said they were able to sell some of the jewelry that arrived from that shipment to HSN. But Nazira would never be paid for any of it.

Despite the issues with the poor merchandise, Bajalia requested another large order from Nazira in 2015, but Nazira refused to fill it. Bajalia staff later sent dozens of boxes of jewelry and a return packing list to Nazira in an effort to cut ties. The packing list showed that much of the jewelry from the $70,000 production order was missing from the return shipment. The rest were items that Nazira made and sold to Bajalia years prior, that when added up, totaled close to the $70,000 she was owed, according to the packing list.

Farah denies that her company sold any of Nazira’s items to HSN that weren’t paid for.

“We tried everything to help solve the problem. We offered to liquidate them and sell at a reduction, but she refused,” Farah said. “Then she refused our return shipment. They’re sitting in a corner of our warehouse and I haven’t charged her rent.”

When asked if a Times reporter could see the boxes of jewelry, Farah refused.

“It was a year and a half of just waiting and begging,” Nazira said. “I had no money to pay the people (I employed). Debbie says she wanted to help my family move to Florida. She said she was going to sell her house so she could pay me.”

Through help from friends Nazira met at BPeace, she got a U.S.-based collections agency involved, but they were unable to retrieve any money from Bajalia. A lawyer told Nazira it would be too costly if Nazira sued Farah.

Nazira would watch from her new home in Detroit and later Pennsylvania as Farah continued to sell jewelry on HSN that she and her workers made.

Now that Nazira is settled with her family, she said she is looking for work to save enough money to send back to her family and workers in Afghanistan to make up what they lost.

Farah’s membership with BPeace, the nonprofit organization that helped connect Farah to Nazira, has been inactive for more than two years, said Toni Maloney, its co-founder.

“The women that BPeace works with, especially in Afghanistan, operate their businesses in such a fragile environment, that anyone engaging in business with them knowingly assumes the risk from violence and issues with supply lines,” Maloney said. “If you enter into that situation not knowing that, you have no business doing business in regions like this.”

Nazira is one of many artisans Bajalia hasn’t paid over the years.

The Starfish Project and other nonprofit groups signed on in 2008 to work with Bajalia for a shopping catalog through Great American Opportunities, a respectable nonprofit fundraising platform. At the time, McGee was just getting the Starfish Project off the ground, but she knew and trusted the people from the other nonprofit groups involved in the project.

Bajalia was the middle man who organized the whole thing,” McGee said. “They bought a lot from us - $50,000 worth - which was the biggest quantities we’d ever done at the time.”

But McGee said Bajalia regularly fell behind on payments. The company often paid some of the bill, but Farah came up with excuses why they couldn’t pay it all.

“It was so very frustrating. (Farah) stopped responding to my emails and would get very mad at me when I insisted she pay us,” McGee said. “She always had an excuse. She’d tell us she was suicidal then send an email asking us to pray for her so she could pay us.”

Other nonprofit groups that signed on for the same catalog ran into similar problems.

Eden Ministry, a Christian organization that reaches out to people in the red light districts of Asia, is owed $22,000, said Wendy Eldridge, its business manager.

“When Bajalia started working for HSN, we opted not to join them,” Eldridge said in an email. “I am dismayed to hear that Debbie is still carrying on with her bad accounting practices, exploiting the very women she claims to help.”

Hearts and Hands, a group that trains and employs deaf and disabled people in Yunnan Province, China, is owed $19,000, said Ingrid Chen, its director.

“There were pictures of our deaf workers holding products on the Bajalia website. I asked Debbie to remove this information when it was still on the website some years after our order and our products were no longer for sale on her site,” Chen said. “We have never had any problems like this with anyone else we’ve worked with.”

McGee said her staff contacted Bajalia’s board of directors pleading to be paid, which finally got Farah’s attention.

“She was livid,” McGee said. “Up until that point she was all very ‘please pray for me.’ Then she accused us of trying to defame her and threatened to get her lawyers involved.”

Bajalia never paid these organizations. After years of trying, McGee said, she finally gave up in 2011.

“Losing that money really affected us,” McGee said, noting that $20,000 was a lot of money to the women she works with. “We’ve grown a lot since then, but at the time it put a big stress on us.”

In interviews with the Times, Farah admitted that her company never paid these vendors from 2008 because funding dried up during the Great Recession. She said she plans to pay them, but gave no timeline.

Farah said that closing out those bad debts is difficult because she now sells jewelry through a separate limited liability company she launched in 2010. When she was working with the Starfish Project and others in 2008, she was only operating a nonprofit company.

“The nonprofit still does owe money to some vendors, which is one of the reasons why I have chosen not to shut it down,” Farah said. “Right now it doesn’t have the funding necessary to pay them. I have chosen to be personally responsible for this and am proceeding to pay them with my own personal income.”

But vendors aren’t hopeful they’ll ever see a check from Farah after waiting nearly a decade for payment. They say they haven’t heard from her in years.

One of those vendors, Lucas Caldeira, spent more than a year trying to collect. Unlike the others, he was eventually paid.

“I don’t trust her. Many have burned their fingers with her and gotten hurt like us,” said Caldeira, the executive director of Asha Handicrafts Association, a 40-year-old company that employs artisans in India. The company made an exclusive line of products that Bajalia sold on HSN for some time.

It isn’t just artisans who haven’t been paid. Bajalia’s debts affected the jewelry designers, marketers and staff the company employed in Central Florida.

In 2012, a dozen workers from Bajalia’s office in Winter Park filed complaints to the U.S. Department of Labor after working months without a paycheck. A spokesman said the agency found that 12 employees were due more than $18,000 for minimum wage violations; they were eventually paid.

“We were used to our paychecks coming in late sometimes, but . we hadn’t been paid for two months,” said Drayton, the jewelry designer who often took calls and emails from desperate artisans waiting to be paid.

Drayton was drawn to the job because of Farah’s connection to her pastor and church. She liked the idea of working for a company that was passionate about empowering women.

But she quit after a few months.

“Anytime we asked Debbie about it, she would just yell at us, ‘You’ll get it when you get it!’ She said the same to the artisans, too.”

Farah lives in a charming two-story brick mansion in the upscale Sevilla subdivision, where the roads are brick paved and every refurbished old Florida home has a well-manicured yard and at least one large, mossy oak tree. Homes in this part of Winter Park, a quiet and arts-centric suburb of Orlando, sell quickly at $1 million and up.

Farah doesn’t own the home, which she shares with her dogs. She rents it.

The house she owned up until recently is in a cookie-cutter, middle-class neighborhood about 20 minutes away. Farah’s house sold for nearly $350,000 in October. In 2010, just two years after Farah bought the house, she nearly lost it to foreclosure. It’s at least the second home Farah has owned that slipped into foreclosure.

Farah, who identifies as a “first generation Palestinian American,” has left a trail of financial troubles wherever she has lived. She filed for bankruptcy in Duval County in the early 1990s. In Texas in the early 2000s, Farah faced a delinquency claim related to property taxes on a home she owned.

Court cases filed against Farah in Texas, Georgia and Florida show she was behind on car payments and other bills. And past employees said Bajalia was frequently behind on rent for its office and storefront.

Despite this, Farah has had a varied career working in marketing and merchandising. She started her own design and gift studio in Jacksonville as a young adult. However, she was charged with felonies for writing worthless checks from the business account, court records show. The charges were pleaded down to misdemeanors, and she served probation.

She worked as a creative director for companies such as Neiman Marcus Direct, which helped Farah found Bajalia Trading Company in 2003 in Texas as a nonprofit fair trade organization. She raised $25,000 through connections with three churches in Dallas to get started, according to the book Great Commission Companies: The Emerging Role of Business in Missions, which features a chapter on Bajalia. She explained that she was inspired to work with female artisans through mission trips with her church in Texas.

In 2010, Farah launched a for-profit, limited liability company in Florida called Bajalia International Group. The book says Bajalia’s projected revenue that year was $4 million, and the company employed roughly 5,000 people worldwide. Nearly 90 percent of the company’s operations were funded by the sale of artisan jewelry at that time. Shortly after, Bajalia started selling merchandise on HSN.

“Large companies, like HSN, aren’t prepared to work with a nonprofit,” Farah said in an interview with the Times. “A nonprofit couldn’t generate a warehouse.”

Farah operates both companies in tandem. The for-profit entity sells artisan jewelry. Her nonprofit works with artisans to help them scale their business to one day work with the for-profit company and other businesses.

“I continue to incubate under the nonprofit,” Farah said. “I have to be the only thing that overlaps between the two companies.”

Bajalia touted a board of directors made up of well-known figures from Orlando and beyond. The Bajalia website no longer lists its board members, but businesswoman and author Sheryl WuDunn and U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Winter Park, were among those listed from earlier years.

WuDunn denied ever being a board member in an email sent to a Times reporter. Murphy did not respond to requests for comment.

In the book, Farah says she won’t pay for substandard product from her vendors.

“Tough love” is essential, Farah said. It’s a policy that most “missionaries aren’t comfortable with.”

The fact that companies like HSN and QVC are interested in working with Farah means she has a good story and knows how to sell it - even if the story is largely hollow, experts say.

“There are a lot of people out there who are green washing, or fair trade washing, consumers. They use an ethical story line to appeal to a certain demographic and to build on that ‘do good’ consumer model that’s not necessarily true,” said Joan Shifrin, co-founder of Global Goods Partners, a nonprofit group that, like Bajalia, sells artisan jewelry made by women in developing countries.

But the responsibility doesn’t end with Bajalia. The companies that promote and sell its products are perpetuating the false narrative, too, experts said.

On HSN, Bajalia’s products have landed on “Mindy’s Picks,” a list of items for sale selected by the company’s CEO, Mindy Grossman.

“Promoting a company that has multiple claims against them is an ethical violation,” said Budd Margolis, a TV shopping consultant based in London. “The ethical values of HSN, as a company that’s doing billions of dollars in sales, is a big concern now to consumers. It’s not just the environment and sustainability that matters to shoppers. It’s labor.”

___

Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), https://www.tampabay.com.

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