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Worker Story: Working for Victoria program a lifeline for migrants during COVID-19.

Soo, Sermet and Tiff led very different lives, but their paths crossed when they found themselves without work or any federal government support amidst a pandemic - a situation shared by hundreds of thousands of migrants in Australia since COVID-19 hit. After months of financial struggle, they were given a lifeline when they found work at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre through the Working for Victoria program. Working for Victoria was initiated by the Victorian government to bring together job seekers and employers - and is one of the few COVID-19 support measures that is accessible to migrant workers.

Soo, Sermet, and Tiff share how Working for Victoria gave them a much needed foothold during COVID-19 and speak about what more needs to be done to support migrants.

Soo came to Australia from Malaysia in March 2019 after an unlucky turn of events left her badly in debt and she fell victim to debt collectors who threatened to kidnap her child. Fleeing home wasn’t a choice for her, it was a matter of survival. As soon as Soo realised her child was in danger, she says “I left everything and immediately came here.”

In Malaysia, Soo had ten years’ experience working as a travel agent. But after coming to Australia, she had to start again because her experience and qualifications weren’t recognised. It was already a difficult time for Soo when at the peak of COVID-19, she was evicted from her home by her landlord. Without a job and being on a temporary visa, finding housing was nearly impossible. Soo recalls, “Because of the bridging visa, getting a house is really really tough. I got 10 rejections a day sometimes.”

Sermet has a very different background but the challenges he faced in Australia are similar to Soo’s. Sermet is from Turkey but had to leave in 2018 due to political conflict which saw him face seven and a half years’ imprisonment for attending a public demonstration. “Before the crisis, I had a good life,” Sermet says, “I was studying. I got a full scholarship for my Masters degree. I wanted to become an academic… but I lost my chance.” 

After arriving in Australia, Sermet started working at a kebab shop. He says, “I couldn’t find a professional job even if I showed my degree - they just kept saying I don’t have local experience.” He also had a brief stint working on a farm in Coffs Harbour but the piece rate payments meant he was barely able to survive on the wages. “It was the worst experience I’ve had in Australia - I was earning $5-6 per hour which doesn’t even cover my rent so after 3 weeks, I quit.” Sermet returned to Melbourne and his job at the kebab shop but lost this job when the store was sold.

Unlike Soo and Sermet, Tiff has been in Australia for nearly 10 years but had experienced rampant exploitation and wage theft during his eight years in the hospitality industry as a chef. When COVID-19 struck, he lost his job and was evicted from his house. He says, “My boss stopped me coming to work because I couldn’t get JobKeeper.”

After months of unemployment and facing the pandemic alone without any Federal government support, Soo, Sermet and Tiff finally found a lifeline through the Working For Victoria program. They all successfully applied for roles at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Soo is now working as a Key Relationship Assistant in the Fundraising and Marketing department, Sermet is working as a Marketing Project Officer, and Tiff is working in ASRC’s kitchen and foodbank.

For Tiff, Working for Victoria wasn’t just a job but one where he was finally paid fair wages and worked under good conditions. Tiff says, “I’m really happy… there’s no underpayment at all, no dodgy bosses, no abuse... The Working for Victoria initiative changed my life.”  

Another highlight of the program is that it’s enabled all three workers to use and and develop their existing skills and qualifications. Soo says, “They saw I have experience in customer service, talking to people and communication skills. I’m so happy I can use my experience and talent. I’m also learning to use programs like Salesforce.” Sermet echoes this sentiment, “I studied advertising and communication. I mentioned [my experience] at my interview. We picked departments - fundraising and marketing was one of them.”

Source: Stock image

For all three, Working For Victoria has been more than just a job in tough times. “As a team they support me,” says Soo, “They put me on the right path and encouraged me to go through the steps. It’s like a family to me now, it’s close to my heart.” Sermet also speaks of the importance of local experience; “Apart from money, it will be really helpful for my second job after ASRC because now I can prove I have local professional experience here.”

While the program was a lifeline in difficult times, Soo, Sermet and Tiff are nevertheless realistic about the challenges they still face. Their 6 month contracts are set to end in early December, and since Victoria is only just coming out of the second wave of COVID-19 - they’re feeling grim about employment prospects, especially over the Christmas period.

Working for Victoria has been a foothold but not a solution to their problems. While 6 months of income has been welcome relief, Sermet says, “For the first probably 4 months, I only paid my debt,” and the others agree. Sermet, Soo and Tiff’s experiences highlight how structural disadvantages and barriers for migrant workers accumulate and make it harder to get life back on track. Meaningful and long term support is needed. While programs like Working for Victoria are incredibly valuable, the limited relief shows it needs to be accompanied by ongoing access to income support, accessible housing and stamping out exploitative work conditions to ensure migrants don’t fall back through the cracks.

Sermet says “I’m applying for jobs but haven’t seen any job ad that requires 4 months experience or 6. They ask for at least a year or 2 years. So I cannot tell them I have local experience for admin or professional jobs.”

Tiff also says it’s really important for the program to continue for a bit longer. “I have skills, I don’t have a problem but I want this for others as well. A lot of people come to me, my friends - they say, what can I do next month? They don’t have an Australian certificate - even though they have a degree or Masters’ degree from another country.”

Sermet speaks frankly about the possibilities for him after the program ends, “At the end of the day I am single, have no kids, siblings, family here … I can leave my house easily, I can stay outside, it is easy for me …  I think I am one of the luckiest because of my age, language, resume… but what about others?” Sermet’s attitude may be humble but it is a stark reminder of how close many migrants are to homelessness without meaningful support.

Soo is already bracing herself for when the program ends. “For the future of my baby, I want [Working for Victoria] to continue. After this I don’t know what will happen to me. I’m preparing myself for that moment.”

“What I’m hoping is for the Victorian government to extend Working For Victoria and our placement by another 6 months or 1 year. Without this job, I don’t have money to pay [rent] and I will be homeless. When we have no job we skip our meals. It’s a terrible thing. I don’t want this thing to happen to me or anyone else in the world - skipping meals or being homeless. I hope the Victorian government can extend Working for Victoria until this pandemic is over.”

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