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How social enterprise can change lives

Sonam Tshering is enveloped with pride each time a fellow worker achieves success.

Especially as many of his colleagues have arrived in Australia with little to no work experience, are adjusting to a new culture and overcoming language barriers.

Sonam finds great satisfaction in watching them progress, grow their skills and find new jobs.

“I feel so proud,” he says.

Sonam, from the tiny country of Bhutan on the eastern ridges of the Himalayas, was once in the same position as those he now mentors and leads. He came to Australia in 2012 on a student visa to study information technology, and is now a permanent resident, along with his wife and two sons.

He works as a Supervisor at Hotel Housekeeping, a social enterprise set up by White Box Enterprises, which employs asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants under the motto of Changing sheets, changing lives.

Changing lives is at the core of the work of a wide range of organisations such as Hotel Housekeeping, according to Queensland Mental Health Commissioner Ivan Frkovic.

“And that’s a cause for celebration today, on World Social Enterprise Day, when we celebrate those who run social enterprises, those who work in them, and those who support them,” he says.

“We also salute those whose lives have been transformed by social enterprise, who have found themselves in jobs for the first time, and who now feel valued and respected.”

The Queensland Mental Health Commission has contributed funding and expertise to support White Box Enterprises and its social enterprises.

“We recognise the clear link between mental wellbeing and working in a supportive workplace that contributes to a sense of purpose, self-worth and belonging,” Mr Frkovic says.

“Social enterprises are a valuable part of the mental health landscape. In fact research shows there are relatively high rates of mental disorders in families where the sole carer is unemployed.”

Hotel Housekeeping had its genesis in the middle of 2019, when a team of refugees and asylum-seekers did the housekeeping on one floor of a Brisbane hotel for one day a week for four weeks.

The manager was impressed, and before long they had been offered two housekeeping contracts at Ibis hotels, managing the teams with their own supervisors.

Hotel Housekeeping director Shannon Price says from almost the first week the team got the quality right and about 25 people were employed in the work.

“Everything was going swimmingly, and in March-April this year we were ready to employ our first 100 people – then COVID-19 came along,” Mr Price recalls.

Hotel occupancy rates plummeted. Work for the Hotel Housekeeping team was dwindling and drying up.

“We had to respond quickly, so we reached out to various businesses with social procurement policies in place.”

The pandemic was changing lives and livelihoods. Cleaning and disinfection were more important than ever.

As it happened, Lend Lease had retirement villages in Queensland in desperate need of cleaners for disinfection services.,”

“We utilised our Brisbane housekeeping team to work at retirement villages in Brisbane, while creating new jobs for staff on the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast. Some employees had been displaced due to Covid-19 and some were youth unemployed,” Mr Price says.

And so the Spring Services Group was born.

The group’s relationship with Lend Lease now extends well beyond disinfection services and the social enterprise now numbers  25 employees, and the collaboration between Lend Lease and the Spring Services Group is a finalist in the 2020 Social Traders Awards for Social Procurement Partnership of the Year.

Mr Price says some of the employees include people who had previously been unemployed for long periods. Most of the workers come to them via community groups and referral partners such as the Red Cross and Multicultural Australia.

There are many success stories emanating from the team.

Two Ethiopian women who worked through the initial busy period of the Hotel Housekeeping have now gone on to full-time jobs elsewhere – one in a school and one in a hospital. Their time with Hotel Housekeeping helped them get a foot in the door to a long-term future, in what Mr Price says is a terrific outcome. Two staff are now transitioning into direct employment with Lend Lease.

He says the plan now is to have 1000 people employed within the next three to five years.