Australian Human Rights Commission


Barriers that can affect employability



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12Barriers that can affect employability

12.1 Experiences of trauma and its effects

    A refugee’s experience of trauma can be a significant barrier to employment. In fact, it may affect their employability over and above their visible difference. Studies have tended not to focus on the relationship between trauma and employability because it can be seen as perpetuating a view that refugees are ‘damaged’ and that, once someone has passed the ‘acute’ phase of trauma, they should not be defined by those past experiences.93

    However, this idea presumes that trauma does not have a lasting influence on an individual’s employment opportunities. For instance, if a refugee arrives in Australia during the acute phase of post-traumatic stress disorder, it may limit their prospects for finding and keeping a job at this time. However, when they are no longer in the acute phase and feel ready to enter the workforce – possibly months or even years later – the qualifications they hold may no longer be relevant or attractive to employers.


12.2 Level of skills


    Employment outcomes for refugees (i.e. humanitarian entrants) are consistently worse than for all other groups of migrants in Australia. A 2007 study found that unemployment rates for refugees stand at 71% six months after arrival and at 43% after 18 months, compared with eight per cent and zero per cent for business or independent migrants at the same intervals.94 While skill levels of business and independent migrants are assessed prior to them entering Australia, this difference remains very stark. Refugees of all nationalities experience unemployment rates well above the national average.95

12.3 Unemployment and under-employment

    The high level of unemployment and under-employment of African Australians cannot be only attributable to a lack of employment skills; the literature shows distinctly that discrimination comes into play. Furthermore, employers view migrants, regardless of their qualifications, as a pool of workers to fill undesirable jobs that other Australians are not prepared to take.96 As a result, migrants are over-represented in low-skill and low-paid employment.97 This is also due to the lack of recognition given to overseas qualifications, which is seen by many as indicative of systemic and institutionalised discrimination.98

12.4 Employability difference and the need for further research


    Studies have not examined the difference in employability between skilled and unskilled refugees. Many have tended to skew their samples towards a better-educated and qualified potential workforce. While such samples do not provide ‘generalisable’ data, they do allow for studies that look at a sub-set of the population who are objectively employable and the effect of discrimination that is not connected to their skills.99 It is also possible that unskilled refugees looking for work might be less likely to experience discrimination in recruitment when applying for low-skill jobs that are less desirable to the broader labour market. However, what is actually happening can only be known by undertaking an in-depth study of employment data and experiences.100

12.5 Interrelationship between unemployment, employment and well-being

    Unemployment and poverty affect a person’s capacity to access services, housing and food. An increase in income has been shown to improve a refugee’s status on most of these indicators, as well as improve self-esteem and confidence.101 Gaining employment can positively affect mental health and self-worth, as well as reduce financial burdens and the concomitant stress associated with money problems.102 It is also a major factor in successfully integrating into Australian society.103

    “Research indicates a complex relationship between employment and measures of well-being. Work is often regarded as the means by which to make a major contribution to society, as well as enhancing skills, social networks, and identity.”104 Continuing unemployment or under-employment can greatly affect a person’s sense of well-being. Not only does it create financial stress that impacts all aspects of life, it can reinforce thoughts such as ‘you are not good enough’ and ‘your contribution is not respected or appreciated’.


12.6 Gender differences in securing employment

    Some studies have shown that African women find it easier than men to secure employment on arrival in Australia.105 This may because women who seek employment tend to be, on average, more self-confident and/or more determined. African men will necessarily attempt to find work because of their role as financial caretaker and provider for their family. However, the women who look for work may do so out of grave necessity to be their family’s sole wage earner and, consequently, this make them more determined. They may also be more discerning in the types of jobs they pursue – taking into account their relevant experience, what jobs are available and what work they are likely to secure – which leads to higher rates of success.

    Barriers that women face when they seek to enter the workforce include childcare (both access and cost), English language skills, the need for prior local experience and a lack of recognition of overseas qualifications or experience. While African Australian women do often find work, they are commonly excluded from ‘meaningful’ employment, which can lead to grief, loss, depression and feelings of isolation.106

    When African women experience problems in the workplace, they can find it difficult to challenge co-workers and management. They fear losing their job, making the situation worse or that it will affect their chances of getting another job.107




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