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Hobart construction business seeing promising results after prioritising hiring refugees and migrants

ABC News (AU) logo ABC News (AU) 6/10/2022 By national features reporter Megan Macdonald
Bricklayer Paw Nay's pastor encouraged him to come to Tasmania for a fresh start. (ABC News: Luke Bowden) © Provided by ABC NEWS Bricklayer Paw Nay's pastor encouraged him to come to Tasmania for a fresh start. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

A construction site in Rokeby, Tasmania, is a far cry from war-torn Myanmar. 

That is where bricklayer Paw Nay — who now works for labour-hire business Integrate Workforce — was living 15 years ago.  

"In Burma, I lived in a refugee camp … 11 years there and then, in 2008, I came to Tasmania," he said.

Paw was encouraged to come to Tasmania after his pastor — who had married in Tasmania — told him he should go to Hobart for a new start. 

In Hobart, Paw met Kelvin Smith, and the two became friends. It would be a meeting that would change the course of Paw's life.

The friendship turned into a working relationship, and recently it meant Paw was approved for a home loan, a milestone he could not imagine when fleeing soldiers in his home country more than 15 years ago. 

"I enjoy living in Hobart very much," he said. 

Paw's background is similar to other refugees who come to Tasmania in the hope of long-term stability. 

Not just for themselves, but also for their families. 

For Kelvin, seeing friends who were either migrants or refugees, like Paw Nay, struggle to gain employment opportunities was frustrating. 

Kelvin — who was working in construction at the time — knew there was an industry boom and a shortage of workers. 

The solution to him was simple. 

"At the time, I noticed that the construction industry was generally very Caucasian … I had friends who were very capable and willing to work, but they just couldn't find jobs," he said.

The match had been lit and, soon after, Kelvin created Integrate Workforce, a labour-hire business with a difference.

The business hires people with refugee backgrounds in the hope that the work can provide pathways to long-term employment opportunities.

This concept has already gained positive feedback.

Jal David — a senior project and case manager from Migrant Resource Centre Tasmania — said businesses such as Integrate Workforce provided a place for refugees to overcome common obstacles that could often stop them from gaining permanent work. 

The obstacles facing refugees and migrants when they arrive in a new country can be diverse. 

From family separation, trauma and mental health concerns, the prospect of starting again is daunting, Jal said.  

And, for many refugees, learning English is often one of the biggest challenges. 

It makes the process of finding a job, from writing a resume to attending an interview, feel out of reach for many. 

"Businesses like these provide a way for people to learn on the job … the practical side enables people to learn English quicker," Jal said.

The language barrier for refugees when seeking employment was an obstacle Kelvin hoped to ease. 

"If you have English as a second language, your resume may not look top notch … you'll likely go to a job interview shaking in your boots because you don't understand the questions being asked of you," Kelvin said.

"The opportunity that we provide is that people with English as a second language can be on a worksite and show their skills … it means employers can see them working and realise that perfect English skills aren't everything."

'Like your dreams coming true'

Tony Htoo came to live in Hobart when he was just 11 years old.

He only knew life in a refugee camp in Thailand, having been born there and living with his immediate and extended family.  

When they arrived in Tasmania, learning English and adjusting to a different culture took longer than expected. 

"I'm thankful that I came here … I didn't get an opportunity to study there but I could here," he said. 

While he was grateful for the opportunity to study, Tony described himself as being "cheeky at school" and always "ending up in the naughty corner". 

When it came to finding a job, he couldn't imagine what type of career would lie ahead. 

"I always wanted to work in construction, because I'm good with my hands," he said. 

Tony met Kelvin through mutual friends and started working with him soon after. 

Today, he is working in a full-time plastering apprenticeship.

Building a bright future 

It is an outcome that reflects Kelvin's future goals for his business model. 

"I'm just amazed at how these guys continually step up.

"People like Paw Nay, who come here with a horrific backstory, who still have family back home dealing with horrible things … and, yet, every day, they are still coming to work and bringing their all, with a smile on their face," Mr Smith said. 

The business has hired more than 35 refugees since its conception, and Kelvin hopes to only increase that number in the future.

Jal said the impact that Integrate Workforce has had on its employees could only be described as positive. 

He hopes that other employers realise the benefits that can come from hiring refugees and migrants, and not turning their backs on them. 

"It builds your sense of confidence as a human being. You're developing new skills, your social network, and it's good for your sense of belonging and your self-esteem," he said.

"Ultimately, what all of us are looking for is independence and freedom to do what you want to do in your new country where you come to build a new life."

For workers such as Paw and Tony, it appears that the foundation for a more stable future has been built.

"It's been fantastic … like your wishes coming true," Tony said. 

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