For management at aged care organisation Fronditha Care, it was the ultimate conundrum.
The residents, mostly Greek-speakers, were finding it difficult to communicate their needs to English-speaking Australian workers.
As Melbourne’s Greek community grows older, the English language skills of many - developed as a second language after migrating to Australia - tend to wane.
Kathleen Fisher, Executive Manger of Human Resources at Fronditha Care recalled the problems facing the organisation in 2013.
"The most dominant question, complaint or issue raised with the managers, general managers or the CEO was 'where are your Greek-speaking carers?’,” she said.
The organisation was finding there were simply not enough multilingual aged care staff available in Australia.
Fronditha rostered at least one Greek speaker to work at all times, but this person was often having to juggle multiple requests.
“[Residents] were trying to say, I don’t feel well, I’ve got a pain in my chest, or something like that, and there was always the risk that no-one would understand what the person was asking,” Ms Fisher said.
"To provide a more fluid service, a more healthy environment, not only for residents but also for the staff, we thought, well, we need to get more Greek speaking carers."
But Fronditha could not bring Greek carers in on 457 visas because aged care workers weren’t eligible for the country's temporary skilled migration scheme.
The discovery of the labour agreement
In the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis, Fronditha found more Greek speakers, in Australia on tourist or student visas, approaching them seeking work.
"This is when we started to look at - well, could we sponsor these people?”, Ms Fisher said.
In discussions with the Department of Immigration, the possibility of a labour agreement was raised.
Labour agreements are deals between the government and individual businesses that allow the business to hire foreign workers who wouldn’t usually be eligible for a 457 visa.
Fronditha made an initial proposal in 2013 that was knocked back, but when the Coalition government came to power, a second application was made and subsequently approved.
"We had a visit from [then-Assistant Immigration Minister] Michaelia Cash and her advisers, and they were very supportive and they said, 'alright put the application again’,” Ms Fisher said.
"We just had to update the application with the latest financial details - it was nearly a year old so I just had to update that.
"I had to then show proof that for the past six months we had been endeavouring to hire the type of people that we needed."
The approved agreement allowed for up to 20 foreign aged care workers to be recruited each year over three years. Currently, 30 such workers are employed at Fronditha.
Senator Cash trumpeted the freshly signed agreement in 2014, saying "Fronditha Care is an example of the importance of nurturing cultural identity in a supportive environment, as an integral part of maintaining well being into older age.”
The organisation continues to receive strong support from the Liberal Party. Liberal Senator Jane Hume called Fronditha Care CEO Nick Thodos "the ultimate political secret weapon” in her inaugural speech to the Senate last year.
The worker's perspective
Jenny Skandalaki worked for Fronditha Care from soon after the labour agreement was approved until she returned home to Crete last year.
"I took a hard decision in 2013 to come to Australia just to check how is the life there,” she said.
She started on a tourist visa, then moved on to a student visa as she took English courses.
Around that time she heard about Fronditha and with a nursing background, she pursued the opportunity.
After paying close to $10,000 on qualifications for the role such as a Certificate III in aged care, she was offered a job.
"It was so stressful to wait to find out what will happen to you, then to find out you have the sponsorship was like someone was giving you a million dollars.”
But her time working there was not always easy. One time she worked seven days in a row and she was sometimes rostered on night shifts, despite preferring to work days.
"That was the option - nights, only nights. I couldn’t have done anything different than to say ‘okay’, or to leave,” she said.
With doubts about whether permanent residency would ever be available to her, and after the death of her grandfather in Crete, she finally decided to leave Australia.
"I thought that if I continue giving 100 per cent of myself, it’s a win-win situation. I win from the experience. They win as well: a good staff that gives 100 per cent.
"But when you start getting really tired from all these (immigration) procedures, your studies money, hard work... you can change your mind.
"You want to calm down a bit, you want to slow down.”
Now working in Crete in the food and tourism sector, she has started a business called Cretan Cooking Classes. However Ms Skandalaki still remembers her time at Fronditha fondly.
“The best time that I had in Australia was the time that I did that sponsorship, it was the best time of my life."
The employer's perspective
Fronditha's Kathleen Fisher said the scheme was working so well, the organisation was currently negotiating a new labour agreement to replace the old one.
"We are bringing a younger generation of individuals into the aged care industry, which is begging for people,” she said.
"We make sure that they are qualified before they come in and we continue to up-skill them, along with all our other staff members, so that they are at the same level of skill.”
Acknowledging Ms Skandalaki’s experience, she emphasised that the organisation has eliminated workers being rostered on for more than five consecutive days.
But she admitted that it can still be hard for workers, who may get homesick or feel “trapped”.
“Because our agreement specifies four years, they are, for want of a better word, trapped within that for that particular time,” she said.
"But the feedback I have had from the individuals is that they see it as life changing, this opportunity.
"I’ve got cards from a number of them saying thanks so much for the opportunity, so they can remain in Australia."
Ms Fisher intends for a pathway to permanent residency to be included in the new labour agreement.
It’s an attractive aspect given hundreds of occupations have been blocked from permanent residency through the 457 visa in recent government reforms.
"After four years and they get their PR [permanent residency]," she said.
"You’ve got individuals who are really well qualified, who have a solid background in the aged care industry and they are free to move into the community and work for other organisations if they so wish.”