Society

Melbourne: Migrant and refugee women find work making face masks during Covid-19 lockdown

Face masks became mandatory in Melbourne on Wednesday, leaving millions in need of protection.

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You’d be hard-pressed to find many positives from Melbourne’s latest, six-week COVID-19 lockdown.

But increased economic and employment opportunities for migrant, refugee and asylum seeker women is one of them.

With face masks now mandatory in Melbourne, social enterprises that employ migrant, refugee and asylum seeker women in Victoria have shifted operations to focus on manufacturing face coverings in order to keep vulnerable women in jobs.

Ifrin Fittock, the chief executive of not-for-profit social enterprise SisterWorks, says her team of employees, who all work from home, has grown from eight to 30 and produce between 7,000 and 10,000 masks per week.

Each week, Fittock said SisterWorks is able to employ a further one to two employees thanks to the success of the masks.

"They are very excited because this is an opportunity for them to try and earn some income and work from home,” Fittock told SBS News. “It’s definitely a silver lining kind of situation, where some of the sisters' husbands have lost jobs and are not working anymore.”

SisterWorks seeks to improve the “confidence, mental wellbeing and sense of belonging” for migrant, refugee and asylum seeker women. The enterprise typically produces ethically made homewares, handmade body care, jewellery and toys.

According to Fittock, their main income stream stems from in-person speaking engagements and market stalls — which have all dried up in the past few months. Fittock says without the mask opportunity, SisterWorks may have been forced to close.

Like SisterWorks, not-for-profit organisation The Social Studio has pivoted its workforce to produce masks.

Chief Executive Cate Coleman has urged all Melburnians to purchase masks, where possible, from social enterprises that focus on skills training and employment opportunities for refugees and migrants — as opposed to large supermarkets and chemists.

"If people have to buy them they may as well buy them from a social enterprise which is creating work opportunities for people who are marginalised and particularly vulnerable,” Coleman told SBS News.

Experts say refugees and people seeking asylum are particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of the COVID-19 crisis.

Two issues seem to be most prevalent for refugees and asylum seekers in Australia.

The World Health Organisation and Australian Department of Health have both highlighted overcrowded detention centres as places that are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks. The latest report from the Australian Department of Home Affairs shows there were 1,373 people in immigration detention facilities in Australia at the end of March.

The second issue relates to the economic impacts of the virus.

Refugees with permanent visas can access the Australian government’s income assistance packages, like the JobSeeker payment. Asylum seekers who have yet to have their refugee claims assessed and live on Bridging Visas, however, are ineligible for government income support — as are refugees living on temporary protection visas.

Without income assistance, and with widespread job losses across the nation, the risk of poverty for refugees and asylum seekers is particularly high.

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