Finding a job is hard enough – for a refugee the challenge is multiplied

Refugee and humanitarian arrivals to Australia in recent years are likely to have experienced greater instability and disruption in their lives before migrating compared with earlier arrivals.

They are more likely to have spent more time in dangerous and disruptive environments. They are less likely to have worked in the year before arrival and less likely to have worked in skilled occupations in their former country. All these factors work against refugees’ chances of labour market success.

"Given the Chance helps refugees become involved in the wider community and it encourages that wider community to become more inclusive."
Jo Tabit, Senior Manager, Workforce Solutions, Brotherhood of St Laurence

These refugees may have had little or no choice in migrating, had no choice in their country of resettlement and have little or no understanding of employment opportunities in the Australian context.

All of these, sometimes traumatic, uncertainties are likely to contribute to an individual’s feelings of vulnerability and disempowerment in relation to employment. The need to gain employment quickly is especially important for refugees as they attempt to achieve some security but that need can lead to them accepting less desirable jobs or foregoing opportunities to learn English.

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Ahmad Raza came to Australia as an asylum seeker in late 1999.

“I left because of the war and sectarian violence against Hazara people. I came by boat alone, leaving behind my family. I was 25.

When I took the boat it was absolutely terrifying but I had no choice. I was placed in the Woomera Detention Centre for nine months and then granted a protection visa. I first lived in South Australia, then NSW, then back to SA before finally starting my education.

I'd been to a school run by volunteers who believed there wasn't enough support for Hazara people. Your assessment was based on the number of books you had read. I started here at Year 11 in a senior college for people who wanted to complete their education.

I was about to finish Year 12 when I heard about a scholarship at RMIT. I finished school and came back to Melbourne and formally applied for the scholarship. I was successful and began a Bachelor of Social Science, majoring in international development.

During my last semester at University I got my permanent protection visa. After I completed my degree, I started looking for work. It didn't go well. I couldn't get a job. I didn't know how to even apply for a job. I didn't know what to say in an interview, what jobs I should apply for, even what resume a looked like. I kept applying for a year, without luck. I started thinking I had to go back to uni but then I was told about the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

I went to the Brotherhood for assistance and was referred to the Given the Chance program. After an interview I was employed by ANZ working in a call centre but then moved to a different role working with personal loans and mortgages.

I stayed almost five years but really wanted to work in the community so I moved to Anglicare Victoria as a youth worker, where I stayed for two years. And from there I went back to Brotherhood.

The Given the Chance training was eye-opening for me. I didn't have any experience in trying to get a job. But once I learned how it worked, I got a job. It helped me get a reference, helped me in my professional career and to understand the Australian work culture in a deeper way. I developed my communication skills and learned to be part of a team. It's so important to learn this to work in Australia, if you want to work professionally.

Given the Chance is really good because if you're new to Australia and want to build a career, it's a great start. You get a real understanding of Australian work place culture, which is really important because it helps assimilation.

My life is really good now. I'm enjoying my life. I wasn't allowed to study in Afghanistan because of racism and religious and sectarian problems but here I have freedom to reach my potential.

The challenge to find work

As they compound, such experiences – combined with a pre-migration experience of interrupted employment – can have negative impacts on labour market prospects in the long term.

For the vast majority of recent refugees, unemployment means low income, which in turn can exacerbate health issues and present a barrier to well-being in a range of other ways. The ability to secure decent housing, for example, is dependent on income and in turn, sustainable employment.

The Brotherhood of St Laurence's Given the Chance - workforce solutions that matter program not only assists refugees, asylum seekers and other marginalised jobseekers find work, it also supports employers to grow and diversify their workplaces.

As well as offering real employment opportunities, the program is an inspiring initiative that fosters social benefit and connectedness in workplace communities.

Given the Chance helps refugees become involved in the wider community and it encourages that wider community to become more inclusive. Mentoring, work placements, training and employment expand social networks and create new and constructive interactions.

Its aims are to create social, educational and employment pathways for refugees and other marginalised job seekers. The benefits are great for recipients but there are also some sound business reasons behind embracing this program.

The business case for compassionate employment policies

Perhaps the strongest reason is the value of a workforce which really reflects your customer base - for example, a South Sudanese participant in the Given the Chance@ANZ programbecame the top teller and exceeded referral targets because of his role as a community leader in the local Sudanese population.

Community members relied on him to help them with their banking needs, along with their other community concerns, leading to a whole new market of customers for the ANZ.

ANZ's senior manager of its inclusion program, Fiona Vines, emphasises it is "so important for the bank's staff to reflect its customer base".

"It really means a lot to many of our customers to see a teller in a branch who comes from the same country and speaks the same language, it makes the bank a more welcoming environment," she told me.

Having a diverse range of employees can also make your existing staff feel really proud of the organisation they work for.

Matthew, a manager of Event Cleaning Melbourne said his experience with the program was so positive he would employ an asylum seeker any day.

"We took on three people from the asylum seeker program, two of whom have continued to work for us. They were no trouble. They worked really hard and got on with the job. For me, it has been very satisfying helping someone who really needs the job and appreciates it," Matthew said.

Fiona says her staff love the program. "Our people like to know we're doing the right thing in the community and supporting people who have come from disadvantage.

"We call it the Halo Effect - when you work for a large corporate, programs like Given the Chance make our staff feel really positive. It personalises the whole refugee/asylum seeker issues in a way that builds empathy and understanding. It is incredibly inspiring to see how resilient and determined the participants can be."

The skills shortage

More than 200 Given the Chance graduates have already found work in fields such as childcare, administration, securities, construction and aged care. The Brotherhood supports both employees and supervisors every step of the way, both on and off the job.

City of Yarra engineering operations manager Kim O'Connor says the program has helped the council fill vacancies within its ageing workforce while improving street cleaning, litter collection and graffiti-removal services.

Trainees, including refugees from Somalia and Sudan, have received mentoring from experienced Brotherhood field officer staff, support to improve their basic literacy and numeracy and gain nationally accredited certificates and heavy-duty driving licences.

Given the Chance is not a Job Services Australia provider; our candidates work with us because they choose to, and they choose to because they want to work. We're really focussed on a solutions-based employment service that primarily focuses on employers as the key strategy for getting people into work. We work with employers to design programs that suit specific needs.

The Brotherhood knows different jobs have different implications for skills and capacity and we address that through appropriate literacy and numeracy screening, computer testing, and, most importantly, knowing and understanding the individual jobseeker and what other services he or she might need. In the case of asylum seekers, we know their visa status, their work rights and we check them every three months to ensure they don't lapse.

Services are free, all our candidates choose to work with us, and our experience is many disadvantaged jobseekers are very highly motivated to engage. Our own RTO (registered training organisation) can provide accredited and non-accredited training services.

After developing this approach over some years, our programs are really beginning to yield some very exciting results. For example, around 80 per cent of refugees who have been taken on by ANZ through Given the Chance have been retained in their jobs. This is very similar to the average recruitment strike rate for candidates who have more advantages.

This tells me this approach works. There's no reason why these talent pools sitting there, untapped in the community, can't be harnessed.

Working with the Brotherhood of St Laurence means embracing diverse candidates and contributing to the BSL's advocacy agenda. We work to influence government towards supporting initiatives and policy platforms that create a more fair, compassionate and inclusive society - and that's a great thing to be involved with.

Jo Tabit is Senior Manager, Workforce Solutions, Brotherhood of St Laurence.

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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