Refugee programs deliver economic as well as humanitarian dividends

Despite the intense focus on productivity and developing a smarter workforce, many companies in Australia are actively undermining their efforts to attract the best skills.

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At the heart of this challenge is an ability to separate the true worth of individuals from stereotypes. Refugees are a case in point. 

Take the prevalent stereotyping of refugees as being disengaged from the workforce and heavily dependent upon social security. Looking more closely at the data, this is because most studies only examine their initial years in Australia. 

The longer term story, as many of us know and appreciate, is that the refugee population is striving for a better life and is prepared to work very hard to obtain it. And these values are typically passed on to their children. 

By examining refugee engagement with the labour force across a longer period of residence in Australia and across generations, a more comprehensive picture of economic contribution emerges. 

When they are given a chance, refugees seize it, and make the most of it. This flows through to their children, who have some of the highest workforce participation rates in the country. 

Many disadvantaged job seekers, and particularly job seekers from a refugee background, experience barriers to obtaining employment in Australian workplaces - regardless of the diverse and valuable skills they have to offer. 

That is a personal challenge for them but also a lost opportunity for Australia at a time when these skills are often in great demand. 

A recent Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA) report shows that Australian refugee-humanitarian settlers have lower levels of labour market performance than other categories of immigrants. 

Data matching from the Census* and the Department of Immigration shows that workforce participation for refugees was 42.3 percent compared to 76.8 percent for skilled immigrants and 63.8 percent for family immigrants. Similarly, unemployment rates for refugees were identified as 22.5 percent whilst for skilled immigrants it was 7.5 percent and family immigrants were 10.4 percent. 

Given the particular situation of refugee-humanitarian settlers, these findings are not surprising. Refugees, by virtue of the sudden, unplanned and often traumatic circumstances surrounding their immigration, face greater barriers than other immigrants in entering and succeeding in the Australian labour market.

Language barriers are especially important with 36.5 per cent of first generation refugee humanitarian settlers rating themselves as not speaking English well or not at all**. 

This picture shows refugees strive to increase their workforce and community participation over time and the generations that come after them often exceed the workforce participation of mainstream Australians. 

Critically, programs like Given the Chance at ANZ are an important stepping stone for that first generation whose fantastic skills and attributes can be too easily overlooked in our modern recruitment systems and strategies. 

The program is a role model for a joint business and community support approach that capitalises on the great things that refugees have to offer.

We know employers want people who are genuinely motivated to work and succeed. The Brotherhood has worked in partnership with many employers to provide recruitment and placement opportunities, in both the public and corporate sectors. 

These partnerships have been highly successful, demonstrating that with the right support, people who are not competitive in the ordinary labour market can improve their skills and become highly productive employees. 

Given the Chance is part of the Brotherhood's unique approach to employment support. We spend time with both potential employees and employers to learn about their business and to understand the requirements of their particular workplaces. 

Given the Chance is one of our longest running and most effective employment support models offering pre-vocational training to both jobseekers and supervisors, followed by intensive field support on the job.

Abraham Maluk

Listen to Abraham's story.

'When I left my country, the only thing I took away were my memories and my cultures. I lost everything I had.'

Abraham Maluk was a 15-year-old cattle herder when his entire family was killed in a massacre in his home village in South Sudan. Along with thousands of other orphaned teenage boys – the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan – Abraham fled to Ethiopia, then ultimately to Kenya.  All in all, he lived in refugee camps for 17 years. 

He educated himself listening to English CDs under a tree in the camp before completing a Diploma of Theology in Nairobi and becoming an Anglican minister. 

When Abraham arrived in Australia as a refugee with his wife and three children, he put himself through a Bachelor of Social Work and then a Masters degree but found it extremely difficult to find work. 

“Everyone said that they had more experienced candidates so I didn't even get interviews,” he said. So when he heard about the Brotherhood's Given the Chance program, he jumped at it. 

Now, 10 months later, Abraham has a permanent position at the ANZ's Traralgon branch near his home in Victoria's Latrobe Valley. The program supports refugees to get work placements with large employers such as ANZ, and is highly successful:  18 out of 20 participants in the recent ANZ program have gone on to permanent roles with the bank. 

Abraham's struggle to find work is not uncommon with the unemployment rate for refugees in Australia around 22 per cent. 

“We're finding people who contribute to a vibrant, diverse and inclusive workforce,” says Guy Mendelsohn, ANZ's District Executive, Inner East. “The thing that resonates with customers the most is that they can meet people from the community in which they live.” 

 For Abraham, a well-known leader in the Sudanese community in the Latrobe Valley, this is borne out by the fact that Sudanese customers often wait longer in line to be served by him as he can help them understand the nature of products and services. 

He  is also continuing his passion for working in the community through a charity he started to support orphaned children in South Sudan: BOCEP.

Relationship with ANZ

  • Given the Chance at ANZ was first piloted in April 2007. It started initially in what was then the consumer finance division and then rolled out to Mortgages, call centres and, more recently, the retail branch network. 
  • Over the past seven years, the program has supported numerous candidates to undergo six and four month work placements in ANZ. By the end of the next financial year, the program will approach a milestone of 100 participants. 
  • The outstanding success of the program is largely due to the commitment of the ANZ staff to make it happen. They recognise such employment programs are not only genuinely needed in our community, they make good business sense too. 
  • Our wonderful participants have also been amazing pioneers, negotiating complex modern work systems, disgruntled customers and new workplace cultures which are very different from the environments they've come from. These candidates are characterized by the qualities of humility, resilience, unfailing politeness, incredible dress sense, and a sense of humour. They have led the way for their community peers in this program and I congratulate them.

Program Replication

  • As an organisation with an advocacy and influencing agenda, the Brotherhood of St Laurence has always sought to make its best program offerings available to others. 
  • ANZ is a national employer so we wanted to see if we could replicate this very successful Victorian model in other parts of Australia and in other parts of the ANZ network. 
  • Given the Chance is expanding nationally with a new program currently recruiting participants in Queensland. The demand for the program is huge, with 100 applicants for 10 places, showing how crucial this kind of supported work program is to giving people who have left everything behind a chance for a new future. 
  • I'm very pleased to be able to congratulate ACCESS Services in Queensland on being the pilot agency for the replication and delivery of the Given the Chance model with ANZ in the state of Queensland. 
  • I understand that program staff from Melbourne have provided the materials and training for ACCESS to begin delivery. Apparently ACCESS have already trained and prepared a swathe of ANZ supervisors to take on refugee candidates using our Building Bridges employer training package. 
  • ACCESS will be part of a nationwide licensing approach from the Brotherhood which, in partnership with ANZ, will aim to make Given the Chance at ANZ, available to refugees across Australia.

Photo: Abraham Maluk and Tony Nicholson.

Tony Nicholson is executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

* 2006 Census

** 2006 Census Data

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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