Australian Human Rights Commission



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10Interpreters

    The use of interpreters can be subsidised in certain situations, based on a person’s ‘reasonable understanding’ of English. However, this threshold appears to be applied in a somewhat ad hoc manner.

    In addition, the choice of interpreter may not reflect an understanding of the delicacy of the situation. In some cases a family member or close friend is used to interpret, as an ‘impartial’ person may not be available. Given that refugee communities are small and most members are either known to each other or connected in some way, the person in need of interpretation may have concerns about confidentiality or be embarrassed to discuss certain issues with a family member present as the interpreter.77

    The use of interpreting services is critical to enable some African refugees to access human services.78 However, while free interpreter services are available to access some agencies providing settlement services, the policy excludes those agencies offering basic settlement requirements.79

    Other concerns or barriers regarding the use of interpreters include:



  • when an interpreter is used for phone calls, it can make nuanced and in-depth conversation difficult

  • children or spouses are often required to be interpreters and a male family member may be needed to translate for obstetric appointments

  • the costs can be very high and are only subsidised in certain instances

  • services are not provided when they might be necessary, based on an ad hoc application of the ‘reasonable understanding’ standard
  • access to appropriate interpreting support, especially for people from countries where many tribal languages and dialects are spoken


  • social dynamics and cultural sensitivities may not be taken into consideration.

    Overall, the literature suggests there is an urgent need to strengthen and integrate interpreter/support services, particularly in areas such as health and social support.80

11Barriers to employment


    The literature reveals that African refugee communities face very significant barriers in securing employment. Studies on discrimination in employment focus on three main categories:

  • visible difference

  • English language skills

  • local experience, which includes a lack of recognition of overseas qualifications.

    And yet, “support to assist them to find employment is arguably one of Australia’s humanitarian responsibilities to refugees.”81

11.1 Visible Difference


    Visible difference takes into account a person’s accent, skin colour, bodily or facial features, dress and attire, and cultural or religious difference.82 The degree to which this difference is visible can determine the levels of prejudice that a person encounters, as well as on-going discrimination faced by their communities, even after-long term residency and otherwise successful social integration.83 There are clear differences in unemployment levels between Australians and foreign-born migrants, especially those with visible differences.84

11.2 English language skills and discrimination

    It is striking to compare employment-based discrimination between East African refugees, who are native English speakers, and refugees from the former Yugoslavia, who report poor English skills even after many years living in Australia. With other factors taken into consideration, the former Yugoslavian communities report higher levels of employment than East African communities, despite having lower English language skills.85 However, African refugees “who conversed fluently … in English reported being told by potential employers that their accented English was a problem and a barrier to employment” – an issue felt “keenly” by refugees coming from countries where English was an official national language.86

11.3 Lack of local experience and lack of recognition of overseas qualification


    A lack of local experience and a lack of recognition of overseas qualifications are additional barriers that African refugees face in securing employment.87 Further, they can also become institutionalised excuses for employers to justify not hiring refugees. Several recent reports have asked why there is no reason shown as to why the Australian Government cannot certify overseas qualifications88.

11.4Discrimination in the workplace

    Research suggests that discrimination in hiring and discrimination in the workplace is pervasive. Even though strong anti-discrimination laws exist across the country, fear of losing out on a job or being fired discourages African Australians from lodging complaints or seeking redress.89 Employers may attempt to defend their discriminatory hiring practices by arguing that they are simply responding to the demands of the market or their client base, rather than seeing the benefits that a diverse workforce can offer the business.

    “Service providers and employers stressed the need for those refugees to conform to the demands of the Australian job market, demands which include language and technical skills, but also revolve around ‘cultural skills’”.90 These inherently discriminatory practices and attitudes are argued as being ‘pragmatic business sense’. However, they have the effect that African Australians may not feel they have recourse to contest entrenched discrimination, including discrimination and harassment directed at them by others in the workplace. Refugees “in general, and people from Central, Western and Northern Africa in particular, appeared to be most frequently subjected to racist behaviours” and this unlawful behaviour can be treated by employers as merely “acceptable” workplace banter.91

    In addition, members of these communities, particularly young people, feel that Job Network and other job placement agencies have been discriminatory in their approach to placing African refugees.92 A common sentiment expressed by refugees is that they are penalised for failing to show up to appointments with placement agencies but the agents are not penalised for failing to secure employment for them.




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