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Social Enterprise Hiring Refugees And Migrants Sees More Demand For Face Masks

The Social Outfit has received more orders after it became mandatory to wear masks in Sydney this month.

When wearing face masks became mandatory in Greater Sydney at the start of this month, The Social Outfit immediately received hundreds of orders for its handmade masks.

Based in Newtown in Sydney’s inner west, the ethical fashion brand and social enterprise trains and recruits women from refugee and migrant backgrounds in clothing design, production and retail. Over the past year, these women have learned to sew the popular face masks, and they’re getting busy again amid Sydney’s newer coronavirus outbreaks.

“I’m seeing these orders coming in and I’m like, ‘OK, do I now need to bring in more sewers?’” Camilla Schippa, CEO of The Social Outfit, told HuffPost Australia.

Janette came to Australia as a refugee from Syria in 2017 and is now working at The Social Outfit as a sewing technician making masks and other garments.
Janette came to Australia as a refugee from Syria in 2017 and is now working at The Social Outfit as a sewing technician making masks and other garments.

The Social Outfit store is located on bustling King Street in Newtown, and above the shop is a workshop where five women work as sewers.

The organisation provides free sewing classes to women from refugee and migrant backgrounds, with the potential for them to be employed if an opening arises. Many of these women, who often have poor English skills and struggle to find employment in Australia, are referred to The Social Outfit from refugee and asylum seeker settlement agencies, migrant resource centres, women’s shelters and domestic violence crisis centres.

When New South Wales experienced higher COVID-19 case numbers in July and August last year, Schippa hired four refugees to focus on only making masks to meet the high demand.

“We taught them how to sew and how to make masks,” said Schippa. “They already had to have had some level of skill, but in most cases, they’ve never used an industrial machine, they’ve never sewed to Australian standards and their English can be very poor.”

Schippa said it’s “really hard” for many of these women to find employment, especially if they’re older than 50 when they arrive in Australia.

“You often don’t get a job at that age in Australia if you don’t have experience in Australia. So what I focus on is to give them paid work for a year or two years, and then help them transition to other jobs so that I can get more women in,” said Schippa.

Janette, who didn’t wish to disclose her surname, came to Australia from Syria as a refugee in 2017. When attending an information night for parents at her son’s high school in Fairfield, the 54-year-old learned of sewing courses being offered to refugees at TAFE (Technical and Further Education).

“I applied because back in Syria, where I come from, I was a dressmaker for 20 years,” Janette told HuffPost Australia. “Jo, who at the time was the production manager at The Social Outfit, was teaching the sewing course.”

After doing a day’s trial at The Social Outfit following Jo’s recommendation, Janette was offered a full-time role as a sewing technician and is still working there.

She said her life is “so much better” since she began working at the social enterprise, adding, “I am deeply grateful that I was able to get a job in sewing without strong English”.

Since it opened in 2014, The Social Outfit has trained over 400 refugees and migrants through its sewing classes and hired 42 women — 85% of whom count this as their first job in Australia.

“The hope is that we can continue to grow,” said Schippa.

The Social Outfit is selling three-layer face masks made from leftover fabrics, many of which are donated by big designer brands such as Cue and Romance Was Born. There is the option to buy one face mask for $20, or opt for the ‘Buy one, give one’ deal where the second face mask is donated to the homeless, domestic violence victims, women’s shelters or youth at risk.

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