Asylum seekers in Asia

Persistent, resilient: why company hires refugees and the competitive advantage they give it

Think of countries where there were wars, and we’ve got people from them, says manager of Melbourne social enterprise that packs and delivers organic fruit and vegetables

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2018, 8:48am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2018, 8:48am

Muhammad Nabaei learned grit the hard way. Forced to flee his native Iran when the government cracked down on massive protests in 2009, the 33-year-old flew to Indonesia, where he bought passage to Australia with a people smuggler.

It was not until 2012 that he was recognised as a refugee after years in a detention centre. He moved to Melbourne, where he spent three years trying to find work – finally landing a job with a food company that actively seeks out people like him.

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“For us, asylum seekers and refugees are a competitive advantage,” says Chris Ennis, the manager of Ceres Fair Food, where Nabaei works as a supervisor. “People who can get themselves to Australia through heaps of countries, through detention centres where they might spend years – you have to be persistent, ingenious and resilient.”

A dozen asylum seekers and refugees now work at the company, boxing organic fruit and vegetables in a warehouse tucked away on the edge of a creek in an industrial estate.

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Not very camera shy. Mohammed and Lax work it like pros whilst maneuvering the pallet of kiwis. #skills

A post shared by CERES Fair Food (@ceresfairfood) on Jul 6, 2017 at 7:11pm PDT

Ennis says Fair Food, which delivers around 1,000 organic fruit and vegetable boxes a week to customers around Melbourne, has had workers from the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and Sri Lanka.

“Think of where the wars were, and we’ve got people from them,” he says. “By the time you get here, you’re strong. So we’ve got a workforce full of strong, determined and ingenious people – qualities people would kill for. And our workers want stability, so our staff turnover is very low.”

Fair Food is the largest of 18 social enterprises – businesses that seek to benefit society as well as turning a profit – run by Ceres, an environment park and farm built on a former quarry and rubbish dump in Melbourne. It started out as a small, idealistic organisation relying on volunteers – and grant money.

Grants are basically taxes from businesses, some of which you might disdain, and laundered through the government. You might as well make your own money ethically and fund yourself
Chris Ennis, manager, Ceres Fair Food

In 1992, a cost-cutting state government slashed its funding by 90 per cent overnight. It could have folded. Instead, its founders decided to pursue financial independence.

Soon, they had two cafes, a market, a nursery, a popular school education programme, and a turnover of A$10 million (US$7.1 million) a year. More than 400,000 people come to the park annually.

Fair Food turns over A$4 million a year and all profits are ploughed back into Ceres, enabling the organisation to be 95 per cent self-funded.

“People are very happy to take grants,” Ennis says. “They think grants mean they’ve got clean hands. But basically, grants are taxes from businesses, some of which you might disdain, and laundered through the government. You might as well make your own money ethically and fund yourself.”

Social enterprises have always been popular in Australia, which has a strong not-for-profit sector and a history of co-operatives.

Jo Barraket, director of the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University, says Australia now has more than 20,000 social enterprises and the sector is growing rapidly. One in three of those enterprises is less than five years old.

Research by Barraket’s team has found that social enterprises play a vital role in creating a more inclusive economy.

In the state of Victoria, where Ceres is located, Barraket has found that social enterprises employ twice as many female managers and people with a disability as mainstream small businesses.

In addition, social enterprises employed an average of 12 per cent of long-term unemployed Australians and 2 per cent of the country’s indigenous people.

“Ceres is a well-recognised player in the social enterprise sector, known for demonstrating what is possible when communities seek to create more environmentally and socially sustainable forms of business,” she says in an email.

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Ceres chief executive Cinnamon Evans says building inclusion was a vital part of her organisation’s goals.

She described a deliberate strategy to create trading activities consistent with the organisation’s environmental goals, and which would create employment and build an inclusive economy.

As for Nabaei, he has no plans to change jobs any time soon.

Last year, he flew to Armenia using the money he had saved from his job. There, in a safe third country bordering Iran, he embraced his parents for the first time in seven years.

“I’m really happy to work here,” he says. “I’m really happy now, with life.”