An alliance of Australian fashion brands has called on the federal government to increase its humanitarian quota of refugees from Afghanistan, with pledges the industry will help support, train and employ the new migrants.
Last month the Australian government announced an initial 3,000 humanitarian places would be allocated to Afghan nationals, as the Taliban took control of the country and chaos broke out at Kabul airport.
In an open letter expected to be sent to the prime minister, Scott Morrison, later this month, almost two dozen fashion labels, including Romance Was Born, The Upside, KitX, Ginger and Smart, Outland Denim and high street staple Witchery have so far added their brand signatures.
“As a sector, we stand ready to support refugees from Afghanistan to build safe and fulfilling lives in Australia,” the letter states.
“This is something we have done before. Australia has a long tradition of responding decisively and generously to humanitarian crises, as demonstrated by special intakes of Albanian Kosovars in 1999 and Vietnamese refugees following the Vietnam war, as well as more recently, with the intake of refugees from Syria and Iraq.
“Numerous members of these communities have been employed by the Australian fashion sector, especially in manufacturing, and we can do it again.”
The letter also calls on the PM to grant permanent protection to all Afghan refugees and prioritise family reunion for Australian residents and citizens – many of whom work in the garment industry – with immediate family in Afghanistan.
The open letter is part of a wider campaign, Voices for Afghanistan, led by Aus Fashion Aid, a collective that was established in 2021, initially to assist Indian garment workers during the Covid crisis, and The Social Outfit, a clothing business which has provided traineeships and/or employment to more than 300 refugees from across Asia, Africa and the Middle East since 2014.
CEO of The Social Outfit, Camilla Schippa, said the $27.2b Australian fashion industry had a long history of employing migrant women, providing economic resilience and kick-starting employment opportunities while their proficiency in English is still in the early stages.
Schippa said the open letter to the PM was a “no brainer” because the option of rallying the fashion industry for a fundraiser was impractical.
“No money is reaching Afghanistan at the moment, people cannot even access their bank accounts,” she said.
“And we thought the message to the government to increase its intake of Afghan refugees would be a much stronger call, if at the same time the industry says we’re committed to do what we can to employ them when they come.
“Integration really doesn’t come until you have employment.”
They have the sewing skills
Kit Willow, designer, Kit X
Fashion designer Kit Willow, founder of the KitX label, said her business had a strong relationship with both The Social Outfit in Sydney and Melbourne’s Social Studio.
In Melbourne, many of her garment makers are drawn from the Sudanese community.
“A lot of them have had eight to 10 children, they’re single mums and they’re very capable, strong, amazing women,” Willow said.
“They have the sewing skills but don’t often have the flexibility to work nine to five, so the Social Studio supports them and helps them work around their schedule.”
University of Western Sydney business student Shahida Haydari, 22, struggled to find employment when she arrived in Australia from Afghanistan via India in 2017.
The Social Outfit offered her a three-month paid traineeship.
“It was a really great opportunity for me,” she said.
“I didn’t even know the right process to find employment when I arrived in Australia.”
Expecting to graduate next year, she has not ruled out a second degree, possibly in law. Five years from now, she said, she envisions an independent life for herself.
“Maybe I might have my own business, maybe I will be working for an NGO, helping other refugees.
“I could have my own home, be an Australian citizen and being able to travel the world.”