This social enterprise gave these women their first chance at a job. But it’s about to close down

Edwina Walsh was on a plane leaving Nepal when the idea first struck.

She had been in the country to get beanies made at a fair trade factory that hired women who had escaped the sex trade.

What about Australia, she wondered.

There must be hundreds, thousands of women, she thought, who have come from countries with strong manufacturing industries.

Where are they?

Some women work the cutting table while others sew. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

Once back in Melbourne, Edwina spent a year researching how she could find these women and employ them.

And women were trying to find her, too.

Women like K'Yo Paw Mya, 55, who spent 30 years in a refugee camp before coming to Australia in search of work and money to support her two sons.

K'Yo says she lived in a bamboo hut for decades at the camp and gave birth to both her children there. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton )

Women like Amina Sadiqi, who has been in Australia for nine years and applied for hundreds of jobs but each time was told a version of: You're too old. Your English isn't good enough. You have no experience in Australia.

Women like Farishta Safi, who needs to send money back to Afghanistan so her family can find a way onto the one flight a day out of the country.

All three are now employed by Assembled Threads — a social enterprise Edwina launched a year ago to tap into a skill set she says Australia barely values anymore: local manufacturing.

Amina and her husband have been turned away from jobs for years.  (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

"In the rag trade you are trained to meet deadlines, negotiate prices, to make things happen no matter what gets in the way, so I felt there was a real opportunity to mine that skill and link it back into local manufacturing," she said.

Assembled Threads began in a converted service station in Moonee Ponds in Melbourne and more recently opened a sewing hub in Norlane in Geelong's north as a state government-funded pilot program, hiring and training nine local women.

Farishta is always a smiling face in the hub despite her daily struggle to get her family out of Afghanistan. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton )'We need to find a place to go'

The makeshift factory is set up in a portable building overlooking a footy oval that in 2006 housed the Ugandan team for the Commonwealth Games.

It's small and only has the essentials: sewing machines, a cutting table, two ironing tables and rolls of fabric.

Last month, the aprons they made for a local wool designer sold out in days over Instagram

Parima and her husband were separated for years until a month ago when he was allowed into Australia.  (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

They've sewn high-vis vests for construction companies and scrubs for local hospitals.

Today, they're finishing up an exclusive line of wool-blend shirts for a Melbourne designer.

The women arrived at 9:30am, like they do every day, right after school drop off, and immediately get to work.

The whirr of sewing machines quickly drowns out chatter about kids and husbands and rising rents. The room becomes a scene of lowered heads and focused eyes.

Monireh says she fell into a depression after being turned away from jobs she applied for in Australia. (ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

Soon, Bollywood tunes blare from someone's iPhone on a window sill.

Monireh Mashhadi Babakandi, the production line manager who worked in a garment factory for 30 years in Iran before coming to Australia fleeing persecution, makes sure the quality is up to scratch.

K'Yo and Rajani Nelson, 51, who both lived in refugee camps for decades, are in charge of the cutting table, moving patterns around the fabric to make sure there's no excess waste. This is the first job they've ever been able to get since arriving in Australia years ago. 

Farishta says this is her second job; she works casually in a kitchen near Torquay the rest of the week, but prefers it here.

Later that day, while ironing the finished shirts, Farishta asks another woman about working for Uber; what car do you need? What does it pay? Can your car be older if you just work for Uber Eats?

Rajani says all she wants is a secure ongoing job so she can focus on building her life in Geelong.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)

After eight weeks, the pilot program in Norlane is finishing up as funding runs out. And the women are once again searching for work while Edwina and the hub's manager, Kate Radke, search for a partner to keep it going.

"We want to see it continue," Kate says, "But we need to find a place to go and we need more local orders."

Lately, Kate has been fielding calls from Centrelink job recruiters asking if the women can stay on.

"It was always only a contract," she tells them.

The women chat amongst themselves about how else they can cobble together a living and pray Assembled Threads will continue — not only for the work and the chance to practice their English but for the friendships too, and a place where they can be themselves outside the roles they play at home. 

Local business could be hub's lifeline  Kate Radke is quickly trying to shore up more business so the hub can continue.  (ABC News: Rachel Clayton )

After the women break for lunch, Kate pulls out a chair and takes a meeting with two women who have travelled from Torquay to talk shop.

The combination of slowing international supply chains after the pandemic and a renewed desire from consumers for sustainable, locally made clothing could be the hub's saving grace.

According to the Commonwealth Bank's Consumer Insights Report earlier this year, more than 50 per cent of Australian shoppers want to buy locally sourced and produced products. And fashion is leading the shift.

The two visitors have a business idea they want to launch but need a local manufacturer. Their product would be boutique, they say, with a small run and seasonal changes to fabrics and design — something that would be too tricky to outsource to factory hubs in Asia, they say.

"We can do this," Kate says, looking over the prototypes and calling over Monireh to show the two businesswomen her stitching prowess.

"How many do you need? They can do 100 units a day."  

One of them replies they might have to up their order, surprised at what the small production line can handle.

"Okay," one woman says, nodding to the other.

"We'll talk." 


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