The rush on face masks in Melbourne is keeping migrant and refugee women in work

Not-for-profit social enterprises in Victoria say there’s a “silver lining” to the second wave of coronavirus infections in the state: increased employment opportunities for some of Australia’s most vulnerable women.

SisterWorks employee Nur making reusable face masks from her home.

SisterWorks employee Nur making reusable face masks from her home. Source: Supplied

A rush to purchase masks before they become mandatory in Melbourne has left not-for-profits struggling to keep up with demand as they pivot their operations into producing reusable, fabric face coverings.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced on Sunday that residents in Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire, the areas currently under Stage 3 Stay at Home orders, would be required to wear a mask in public from midnight on Wednesday.

The directive has led to a surge of people stocking up on masks, with some Australian companies reporting panic buying, website crashes, and elastic shortages

But for a number of small, not-for-profit organisations in Melbourne, the rush has meant they’re able to keep their staff employed, and even expand their teams, as they work round the clock to meet demand.

“They are very excited because this is an opportunity for them to try and earn some income and work from home,” said Ifrin Fittock, chief executive of SisterWorks, a Melbourne-based not-for-profit that provides employment and training opportunities for new migrant, refugee, and asylum seeker women.

“It’s definitely a silver lining kind of situation, where some of the sisters' husbands have lost jobs and are not working anymore.”

The organisation began making masks during the first lockdown, but in recent weeks has seen demand skyrocket. 

In the month of March, Ms Fittock said the organisation sold 368 masks through their online store. This time around, they’re producing between 7,000 and 10,000 per week.

SisterWorks staff drop off supplies to the sewers at home and collect the finish masks so they can comply with Stay at Home restrictions.
Source: Supplied

On Wednesday, she said, they released the stock on the website at 7am, and by 7.30am they were sold out. “Usually we do sell out every day,” Ms Fittock added.

In pre-coronavirus times, the organisation produces sustainable kitchen and home products, gift hampers, and crafts, which they sell from their retail store which has since been forced to close due to coronavirus.

And with much of their income coming from markets and speaking engagements, Ms Fittock said they might not have been able to survive without a new revenue stream. “Without this mask opportunity SisterWorks is definitely in quite a pickle,” she said.

But the masks have been so successful, they’re now adding one to two production staff to the team each week. In March, there were about eight people making masks, now the team of sewers, who work from home, has grown to 30.

“We’re very happy to provide these opportunities for them, and we are inviting more and more sisters through word of mouth,” she said. 

Another Melbourne-based art, fashion, and design not-for-profit, the Social Studio, also told SBS News they are looking to expand their team after they began producing masks earlier this month.

Similar to the SisterWorkers, the Social Studio aims to increase opportunities for new migrants and refugees through skills training, direct employment in their production studio, and a retail store where they sell products made by people of diverse backgrounds. 

Chief executive Cate Coleman said the demand had been “overwhelming”, with the cost-price masks selling out from their online store within a matter of minutes. Since launching the product on 13 July, Ms Coleman says they’ve sold more than 5,000.

A Social Studio staff member sews reusable masks.
Source: Supplied

“We have had a few of our staff ask for additional work at the moment, so it is quite a good thing that we do have this demand so we are able to increase people’s hours,” she said. 

“While it is a sad situation that we are in this position where everyone needs masks, if people have to buy them they may as well buy them from a social enterprise who is creating work opportunities for people who are marginalised and particularly vulnerable.”

While not-for-profits struggle to keep up with demand, supermarket chains have been forced to introduce buying limits on masks; these include one packet per person at Woolworths and Coles stores in Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire. 

Chemist Warehouse chief executive Mario Tascone told 3AW on Monday that they sold more than 1.5 million masks on Sunday. 

But Victorian health authorities have urged people to remain calm and avoid panic buying, reminding residents that handkerchiefs and scarves are also acceptable face coverings.

“Any protection is better than none and it does make a real difference,” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said on Tuesday. 

“It is heartening to see so many people listening to those messages, changing their normal habits and embedding mask and face covering-wearing as part of just the normal daily routine.”

From Thursday, people in Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire have to wear a mask in all public spaces or face a $200 fine unless they fall into one of the following exemption categories: children under 12, you are unable for medical reasons, for professional reasons or if it is not practical, such as while running. 

The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has also provided directions on how to correctly make a face mask at home.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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Published 21 July 2020 at 2:47pm
By Maani Truu