Takin’ Care of Business

The Big Issue’s Women’s Workforce are a force to be reckoned with, as Melissa Fulton discovers when she joins them on a shift.

It’s a bright sunshiny morning when I arrive at The Big Issue’s vendor support offices for my shift. Women dressed in Lycra check the laces on their running shoes, rub sunscreen on their faces, chat quietly among themselves as they prepare to get to work. We make chitchat – where to get coffee, the merits of almond milk (Kristel’s off the dairy), Tina asks Lieu about her family. Gemma and Esther, who are both overseeing our shift, hand out maps, cold drinks and the leaflets we’ll be delivering today, which we pack into bright red Big Issue bags. Welcome to the Women’s Workforce. The agenda for the day? A letterbox drop in the suburbs of inner-city Melbourne, alerting residents to construction work in their area – upgrades to the public housing towers.

Ever noticed that the majority of Big Issue vendors are men? Well, 12 years ago The Big Issue did too, and saw an urgent need to provide safe, flexible and family-friendly work opportunities for women.

While women represent 42 per cent of Australia’s homeless population, women’s homelessness tends to be less visible. Overwhelmingly, domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness among women in this country, and women over 55 are the fastest-growing group to experience homelessness.

In response, The Big Issue launched the Women’s Subscription Enterprise (WSE) back in 2010, employing women experiencing homelessness, marginalisation and disadvantage to pack and send our magazine to subscribers. Demand for no-barrier, inclusive work for women and gender non-conforming people has continued to grow since then, so the WSE has expanded into the Women’s Workforce, and increased the services on offer, employing women for third-party procurement work – jobs like picking and packing, mail house services, data entry, call centre work, event support and, like today, letterbox drops – for government, start-ups, not-for-profits and other businesses, including Australia Post, The Body Shop, Westpac and Melbourne International Jazz Festival. Today we are employed by ICON Developments.

Lieu has been employed by the Women’s Workforce since its inception, and she knows a thing or two about how to prepare for a shift. She agrees to show me the ropes, and is patient when I fumble with the handfuls of leaflets she gives me to pack for the day.

As we stroll between housing complexes unloading our pamphlets, Lieu opens up. One of the benefits of this type of work is that there’s plenty of time for a chat. “I was a boat person from Vietnam,” she says, “so I know how important it is to feel safe.”

Lieu talks about arriving in Australia in 1979, settling in West Melbourne and how for 10 years she owned and operated an Asian grocer in Footscray. She had a family, and when her children were born, she opened a new business with more forgiving hours, so that she had more time to care for and be with them. At one stage, she owned three houses in Melbourne with her partner. And then one night, with nothing but the clothes on her back, she packed up her children and fled – “For our safety.”

At first, Lieu didn’t know where to go, which services to access, who to turn to for help. Her daughter was about to sit her Year 12 exams. “I didn’t feel safe at all. I didn’t want my children to know, but I knew they knew something. They were so scared, but I told them not to worry, we just had to get out the door right now.” They ended up at the sick bay of Southern Cross Station, asking for help.

Lieu’s children are grown up now, and she’s proud that she was able to support them through university. But for Lieu, finding the Women’s Workforce was about more than just the money. “The best part of the work is that we’ve always got support,” she reflects. “Any issue – be it personal or family – you can come there and check in with each other and see how you’re going. The Big Issue is really just like family; if you need to ask for help, you just let the staff know and they’ll meet you before or after or during the work. It’s a really caring, supportive environment.”

To date, the Women’s Workforce has employed almost 200 women across four states – Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. It pays award wages, and offers shifts of a minimum four hours. These shifts are overseen by a managing supervisor, who can provide support and extra training to the women. Importantly, the shifts are flexible – and aim to accommodate the circumstances the women may be facing.

“My first shifts I didn’t show up,” reflects Kristel. “And most jobs wouldn’t ring you back. I must admit, at the start, it was anxiety. I was really bad like that.” Kristel worked in recruitment at Monash University for 14 years. But just six weeks after she resigned from the job, she was in a serious accident. Then COVID arrived, and delayed the surgery she is undertaking as part of her recovery. It’s been a tough time. At one stage she was homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches. But then, her luck changed, and her housing provider connected her with accommodation. About a year ago, she joined the Women’s Workforce.

“The Big Issue has been great, just to get my foot in the door somewhere,” she says. “I’ve found that this has just been a good way to ease back into work… It’s given me back my networking and engagement skills, too, because I withdrew for a little bit there.”

For many women, the Women’s Workforce works as a stepping stone back into the workforce or study. For some, it’s a lifeline. “I kept telling myself as soon as I have surgery, I can go back to work. But I thought, sometimes it’s not just the injury, it can be a little broader than that… You’ve gotta heal the mind too.”

When I talk to Tina during our lunch break, she’s still glowing with pride after the weekend, when her son got married. “The wedding was fantastic, beautiful,” she says, then describes the dress she bought for the occasion: “It’s a full-length dress, navy blue, with short see-through sleeves.”

Tina’s been working with the Women’s Workforce for five years now. Prior to that, she had been out of the workforce for some time. “I was very unwell – my mental health, yeah. But the work with the Women’s Workforce was only for four hours, which was comfortable and manageable, and I got to meet the ladies and have a talk. I’ve made some good friends. It’s a good place, a very friendly and happy environment.

“I’m learning people skills, time management skills, organisation skills. Getting up in the morning and making sure I’ve got enough time to get ready and get into work.”

As we trundle along the footpaths of Melbourne, our bags getting lighter as we unload these pamphlets, I take in more stories from these women. I understand something that I often forget about work: that it’s about more than just the pay – though that’s important too – it’s about having somewhere to be, having someone to talk to, having people looking out for you and asking how you are.

“You might have nothing,” says Lieu. “You might have lost everything. You might not even have a roof over your head, but if you come to The Big Issue, they will give you support and guide you.”

By Melissa Fulton, Deputy Editor (@MelissaJFulton).

Illustration by Eleanora Arosio.