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Staff at this unique Melbourne flower shop are grateful it can remain open during lockdown

Born in Melbourne to parents who migrated from Ethiopia, Asante Abubaker is supporting herself by working several jobs while also training as a naturopath.

For the past three years, the 24-year-old has been learning floristry at a small business in the inner Melbourne suburb of North Fitzroy.

For Ms Abubaker, who lives in Truganina in the city’s west, it’s not just a job. She is also learning new skills including administration, customer relations, orders and deliveries.

During the city’s COVID-19 lockdowns, she also says making colourful bouquets has given her a sense of purpose.

“It is beautiful to be able to make people happy and uplifted, and I feel a sense of connection with others,” she says. “By sending these flowers I feel I am doing my bit for society.”

Asante Abubaker works at The Beautiful Bunch.

Asante Abubaker works at The Beautiful Bunch.

SBS visited The Beautiful Bunch ahead of the most recent Melbourne lockdown.

This week, while the business is allowed to stay open and home delivery is still permitted, it is not delivering to aged care homes or hospitals.

Migrants and unemployment

According to the Bureau of Statistics, almost half of Australia’s young people are first- or second-generation migrants and one in four Australians aged 18 to 24 years were born overseas.

This group has faced severe employment challenges during the pandemic.

The Centre for Multicultural Youth says young people are being hit hardest by job losses and will suffer the long-term labour market consequences of the economic downturn, and those from refugee and migrant backgrounds are disproportionately affected.

Jane Marx founded the social enterprise to employ young women.

Jane Marx founded the social enterprise to employ young women.

SBS Scott Cardwell

“It is harder for them to find employment and build those skills they need to enter the workforce for the first time,” says Jane Marx, Ms Abubaker’s employer at The Beautiful Bunch.

“So working with us is a life-changing opportunity for many young women.”

Ms Marx hired Ms Abubaker four years ago, initially for her events business, Merchant Road. The social enterprise was set up in 2018 to help women from migrant and refugee backgrounds start their careers.

But when events dried up during lockdown last year, it was forced to pivot.

“We started The Beautiful Bunch to do floral deliveries around Melbourne, and [online orders] ensured we could keep the business going,” Ms Marx says.

Data from MYOB Business Monitor shows that prior to the latest lockdown, 39 per cent of Victorian businesses were forced to adapt their offering, compared with a national average of 33 per cent.

Additionally, more than half of all Victorian small and medium-sized enterprises moved their business or services online, with 85 per cent reporting it helped them stay afloat.

Settlement stress

Ms Marx currently employs four staff under the retail award and has recently taken on a new trainee, 19-year-old Betiel Tafsay, who migrated to Australia two years ago from Ethiopia.

“This has really helped me pay for rent and food. It was hard finding a job because when I send out my resume, they want people with work experience, but I didn’t have any,” Ms Tafsay says.

Betiel Tafsay is training in floristry.

Betiel Tafsay is training in floristry.

SBS Scott Cardwell

Ms Marx is familiar with the settlement stress faced by new arrivals after teaching English language skills to public housing residents of inner Melbourne for several years.  

She says the economic impact of four lockdowns in the area has exacerbated an already challenging situation for many.

“Young women from migrant and refugee backgrounds are often caregivers and some have taken on a lot of responsibility during COVID-19 looking after their extended families,” she says.

“At the same time, many sectors offering entry-level roles are simply not hiring. So those opportunities in hospitality work, for instance, are not operating.”

“It really is a stressful situation and especially for those who are already vulnerable, who don’t have money or social connections and don’t have a safety net to fall back on.” 

“And going back into lockdown and feeling isolated causes a lot of anxiety.”

Small Business Australia director Bill Lang predicts the current 14-day lockdown will cost $2 billion in lost economic activity across the state.

But as orders pour in, Ms Marx is confident her business can continue to offer stable employment and training to support its staff. 

Ms Marx is confident the business can grow, despite the pandemic.

Ms Marx is confident the business can grow, despite the pandemic.

“For some, this is the first experience of a safe, welcoming work environment as they gain skills and self-confidence,” she says. 

Ms Abubaker agrees: “Jane is a great mentor. She has a vision to help the community, including people from migrant and refugee backgrounds, and it opens so many doors for us to gain skills and eventually move on to other jobs.”

“I draw a lot of inspiration from the young women we work with, for their resilience and creativity,” Ms Marx says.

“Despite the uncertainties of living through a pandemic, we are well placed to grow and continue to do work we love.”

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