In better times, they would have been training for manufacturing jobs, or putting their seamstress skills to work in factories.
But now, a group of newcomer women has taken industrial sewing machines home with them to churn out dozens of homemade face masks each day. It's hoped their labours will supply local non-profits with enough masks to keep moving during this pandemic.
The non-medical-grade face mask operation launched Tuesday with an online shop and contactless pickup designed to encourage charity donations while Winnipeggers are stocking up on masks for themselves.
Four women are working from home for fair wages from a local garment manufacturer, The Cutting Edge, which for the past two years has been training newcomers to work in manufacturing through the Canadian Muslim Women's Institute. Their training programs had to be put on hold because of public-health regulations for physical distancing, but their work didn't have to stop. Training and basic patterns moved online, and last week, the manufacturer teamed up with two other local agencies to start face-mask production.
Anne-Lydie Bolay, operations director at The Cutting Edge, said it's part of the manufacturer's mission to provide jobs for women, and wants to keep it that way for as long as possible.
"Everybody's facing job insecurity. Even though factories are retooling, there also have been layoffs in some factories, and so we want to provide... that support, that if women at home are looking for income at this time, they can continue to have that," Bolay said, noting one sewer recently had to quit her job at another factory so she could be home taking care of her children.
Working on the face masks from home offers more flexible hours, and the sewers are paid per piece.
Staff at The Cutting Edge deliver cotton fabric for the women to sew into pleated face masks, then they gather up the completed masks — roughly 30 to 50 per day — and drop them off at Pollock's Hardware Co-op, where customers can get curbside pickup after ordering online through a shop created by Local Investment Toward Employment. The site gives customers the option to buy masks for themselves, buy masks as donations, or do both at the same time.
It was a "natural fit" for the Main Street hardware store to be involved, said general manager Samantha Leclerc, paraphrasing Mr. Rogers.
"It's like, when you're in a scary place, you look for the helpers. And we have an opportunity to be the helpers," she said after the first batch of mask pickups Tuesday.
Tyler Pearce, LITE's executive director, said they decided to start the project after hearing from front-line workers at local non-profit agencies who need masks as they continue working with the public, including vulnerable populations. They're aiming to supply non-profits with 500 non-medical masks and allow newcomers to earn some money at the same time.
"We were talking about this (pandemic) and how devastating it is to the women who are learning and needing to earn money. And then together we just devised how we could — from the very start of production, all the way to getting the masks in the hands of customers — how we could do it if we actually each took on a piece," Pearce said.
"Everyone's been moving very fast to bring it to market and to hope that Winnipeggers can help non-profit organizations that need masks."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
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