WRITERS: Michelle Baddeley
Refugees escape unspeakable terrors to find a better life. Yet once 'safe', they face new hardships, with employment at the top of the list. Language barriers and cultural differences make it hard to secure suitable work. Should business play a different role to support refugees?
We need to look at the significant value that refugees add to society, business and the economy. A multi-faceted approach is needed to address policy issues, remove workplace barriers, reframe how refugees are represented in the media, and understand how diversity adds, rather than takes value.
Out of desperation, thousands of refugees are forced from their homes each year. But safe from persecution does not mean secure, and when a job is so hard to come by, the struggle continues. It’s time to rethink the value and knowledge that refugees can bring to business.
Every day, 44,400 people around the world flee their homes due to conflict and persecution. Forcibly displaced, many are lucky to escape with their lives. Yet in seeking safety, they face many new challenges and hardships – with employment nearing the top of the list.
In building incomes, self-worth and belonging, employment is essential for refugees, yet securing a suitable job is riddled with problems. From language barriers to unrecognised qualifications, refugees generally struggle to secure work. They clearly need support, but the challenge is not just about finding a job, but also about overcoming the range of perceptions that employers might have of refugees.
PERCEPTIONS OF THE REFUGEE
The issue of how much Australia does or doesn’t do to support refugees is political dynamite. From riots on Manus Island, to children imprisoned on Nauru, even the most benign commentators frame the arrival of refugees as a problem to be solved.
Of course, Australia’s experience is not isolated. Governments around the world seem to struggle in supporting refugees’ search for employment, new homes, communities and livelihoods.
The challenge is, however, that much of what the everyday person knows of refugees is limited to that which is presented in the media: a simple ‘refugee’ search on Google returns articles about refused medical treatments, forcibly split families, and unresolved asylum policies.
For better or worse, the plight of the refugee is inextricably tainted by politics and media, fuelling fears about jobs, livelihoods, house prices, crime rates and social cohesion. Unfortunately, this subjugates the significant positive contributions made by refugees, which are often lost in heated debates.
But what if we turned this on its head? What if we developed new narratives to counterbalance these biases?
REFRAMING THE NARRATIVE
Already, organisations around the world are working to reframe how refugees are represented in media. In Europe, the Changing the Narrative study found biases in news articles, including an underrepresentation of women, limited refugee experiences, and overly emotive language. The authors compiled a series of recommendations to resolve these biases.
Without doubt, people need to know about how important and valuable the contributions of refugees really are. Already, many analyses from around the world show that refugees and migrants – particularly skilled migrants – make significant positive contributions to society: by boosting productivity, building diversity, and in hard dollar terms via their net tax contributions. So, we’re on the way, but how do we build on the progress so far?
Sharing positive and successful stories about refugees is a good starting point. For instance, many overlook the fact that Albert Einstein could not return to Germany under Nazi rule. Or that actor Jackie Chan fled Hong Kong after being threatened with death by the Triads. Similarly, writer Isabel Allende fled to Venezuela after discovering her name was on a military blacklist in Chile; Freddie Mercury left what is now Tanzania, during the Zanzibar Revolution; and diplomat Madeleine Albright, the first female United States Secretary of State in US history, was forced into exile from Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Closer to home, there are plenty of heartening stories about refugees in Australia. For example, Vietnamese refugee and now successful investor, Huy Truong, arrived in Australia as a child and went on to build the internet company wishlist.com.au – which he subsequently sold to Qantas in 2011. Or Najeeba Wazefadost, who was smuggled out of Afghanistan to avoid massacres by warlords, and is now an Amnesty International ambassador and head of the Hazara Women's Association.
But it’s not just about changing how refugees are depicted, it’s also about showing their worth.
REFUGEES AND BUSINESS
In re-balancing refugee debates, businesses can also play a significant role in demonstrating how and why refugees make valuable contributions to our economy and society.
But how? Perhaps the better questions are: how can refugees help businesses? What are the unique benefits, skills and perspectives that refugees bring? So, it’s about how businesses can leverage the capabilities and talents of refugees, to boost the potential of their businesses as well as supporting refugee communities. In doing so, businesses can ensure that refugees’ potential is leveraged for the good of the economy and society more widely, to support the integration of refugees into local communities and workplaces.
The first step will be to remove some of the barriers refugees face in their search for employment, reflecting what are termed ‘acculturative stresses’ – stresses associated with arriving in an unfamiliar society and culture.
Refugees arriving in Australia have frequently encountered traumatic events and experiences from which they may still be recovering – traumas not only faced in their home countries, but also in their journeys and time spent in refugee camps or detention centres. Most refugees will have had little time to adjust to these traumas and so they arrive into new communities with depleted human capital, and limited opportunities to improve their wellbeing.
Add to this, complex visa and other administrative challenges, possible social and workplace discrimination, as well as growing skill mismatches, and the acculturative stress is magnified.
It’s not surprising that refugee employment rates are relatively low, especially for those who have recently arrived. The likelihood of employment does increase significantly for refugees who have been in Australia for longer periods of time, but new arrivals need additional support.
A key barrier to employment is ‘occupational skidding’, where refugees struggle to find jobs that match their skills and aspirations. Instead, they are forced to take unsatisfying jobs that do not leverage all that they have invested in their own human capital, particularly in terms of their education and training. A stereotypical example would be the refugee lawyer who is forced to work as a taxi driver, an outcome that is not uncommon. Just think of Harry Triguboff, who escaped northern China during Lenin’s ascent, and worked as both a taxi driver and a milkman before he made it in real estate. Now, known as ‘High-Rise Harry’ he has become Australia’s most successful residential property developer and is worth more than US$8.9 billion.
Unravelling the reasons for these kinds of job mismatches is complex. Qualification standards differ around the world; language barriers may impede a refugee’s search for satisfying work, especially if potential employers mistakenly interpret limited fluency as a sign of limited capacity. Byzantine bureaucratic hurdles alongside the legacy of past traumas experienced during refugees’ journeys to Australia may also lead to greater discouragement in the search for suitable work. But perhaps the most dispiriting of barriers is the discrimination that refugees face in their search for employment.
Numerous studies have shown that when full names and photos are included in job applications, the likelihood of invitation to interview is much lower for refugees. More generally, a wide range of experiments from social psychology have shown that we are all inclined to favour our ‘in-groups’ – usually groups of people with similar backgrounds and appearance to ourselves, to detriment of our ‘out-groups’ – those regarded as somehow ‘other’ than ourselves.
Refugees struggle with these barriers in the workplace, and unless we can find ways to promote more positive discourse about the contributions that refugees can make, these barriers will remain intractable.
In leveraging refugees’ business potential – whether as employees or entrepreneurs – policy makers play an important role. But rather than reducing refugees’ acculturative stresses, policy makers are currently magnifying them through flawed government policies. For example, visa changes are making it much harder for skilled migrants to enter the workforce, even while key sectors – such as agriculture – are heavily dependent on skilled migrants.
In enabling businesses to work with refugees, significant changes in government policy are needed. Already, the government is channeling resources towards refugees and migrants more generally, for example the Department of Social Services’ Try, Test, and Learn Fund which is designed to explore routes into employment for refugees and migrants with the aim of finding them a path towards stable, sustainable independence.
Initiatives around developing skills, enabling better matching of refugees to jobs, as well as increasing English fluency will help. Enabling refugees to build productive and satisfying social networks is a more complicated challenge but, if resolved, will support refugees not only in building their social lives, but also in their search for satisfying work or entrepreneurial opportunities.
Internationally, more could be done to develop transferable skills across nations. Policies could be designed either to reduce the power of local occupational groups to limit accreditation of skills acquired in other countries, or to ensure that refugees and other migrants can more easily meet accreditation standards through further training, including government-subsidised training when necessary.
Of course, such initiatives might impose an immediate fiscal burden on governments, but if they enable refugees to flourish and contribute productively to Australia’s future, then these initiatives will more than pay for themselves – not only in monetary and financial terms, but also in terms of building a flourishing, diverse and resilient Australia.
TIPS TO REMOVE THE BARRIERS FOR REFUGEES (AND MIGRANTS)
1. FOCUS ON POTENTIAL.
Someone new to Australia may be shy in an interview because of language and other barriers, but these will disappear with time. Think what the person might contribute once they have had time to adapt to their new situation.
2. PROVIDE SUPPORT IN YOUR WORKPLACE.
By helping refugees manage their specific stresses and constraints, you can help them realise their potential. If you support refugees, you’ll gain their trust, and they’ll reward you with loyalty, dedication and hard work.
3. RECOGNISE UNIQUE CHARACTERISTICS AND CAPABILITIES.
A refugee’s journey to Australia is testament to their resilience, determination, and strength in the face of adversity, as well as their capacity for well-judged risk-taking and a desire for wanting a better life.
4. VALUE DIVERSITY WITHIN YOUR WORKPLACE.
Diverse teams bring a wealth of experience and knowledge. They deliver better decision-making, greater innovation and higher financial returns, commonly outperforming homogenous teams.
5. BUILD OPENNESS AND TOLERANCE.
Encourage all employees to recognise the value of diversity. Give all employees the tools to enable them to understand, support and value colleagues who are refugees (and/or who are from other underrepresented groups
Michelle Baddeley is research Professor and Director of UniSA’s Institute for Choice. An expert in macro and behavioural economics, she has a keen interest in labour relations, refugees, energy & cybersecurity