In 2002, the UNHCR declared: creating sustainable employment for refugees is a priority for successful integration. “Without employment, refugees risk becoming trapped in a cycle of social and economic marginalisation”[1]. This is because resettlement is not an end to the exhausting process of being a refugee. Once settled, people face the cultural, social, and financial impacts of assimilation, a process that can take decades[2]. However, sustainable employment for refugees has not been a priority in Australia for decades. Australia has slowly created an immigration sector that does not allow for the economic or social autonomy of marginalised workers. Many migrant workers work in precarious conditions that are extremely vulnerable to changing market conditions. For example, Monash University found that by the 1st of March, 75% of the Nepalese migrant population in Australia had lost their job or had most of their hours cut.[3] Despite employment levels for Nepali migrant workers rising again, this recent and drastic spike in unemployment is indicative of the precarious labour markets that migrant populations find themselves in.

Historically, Australia has had a heavily unionized workforce that provided opportunities for immigrants to set up their businesses or work. Yet, the 1996 Workplace Relations Act restricted unions in their ability to impact workers[4]. Unions subsequently became less visible as actors that could enforce Australian employment standards. In place, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) was created and tasked with the responsibility of the union’s role[5]. However, the FWO has been unable to access sufficient resources to provide them with the same influence that unions once had[6]. Consequently, since the mid-1990s, Australia has created a working sector that operates within its own tightly bound mechanisms of control, reflective of a conservative mindset and unimpeded by union presence[7]. In the report ‘Reforming Australia’s Temporary Migrant Visa Scheme’, the authors used the analogy of ‘front door’ and ‘back door’ to explain how certain migrants are unequally supported when coming to Australia[8]. The front door is representative of highly supportive institutions that skilled migrants can access. Whereas, the ‘back door’ refers to the lack of institutional support that other migrants receive upon arrival. Migrants who enter through the ‘front door’ are seen as a benefit to Australia, and migrants who enter through the ‘back door’ are seen as a burden.

‘Front door’ migration reaffirms one of Australia’s dominant narratives; it is a lucky country of boundless opportunity. The lack of infrastructure for ‘back-door migrants’ reproduces another narrative; that certain migrant groups are a hindrance to the Australian population. This contrast in the perception of migrant groups is explained by Robert Merton’s ‘Strain Theory’. Cultural institutions within a given society create the set of goals that a population aspires to achieve[9]. Then social institutions provide the means and support to achieve these goals. Yet the strain occurs when these social institutions are not easily accessible to everyone.[10]

Resettled refugees are part of a group of migrants who enter through Australia’s ‘back door’[11]; social institutions will not support those on humanitarian visas or undocumented workers. They are therefore barred from achieving the cultural goals accessible to others, and hence become vilified as unable to “fit in”. Because support for the resettlement process has steadily decreased, establishing social status becomes the sole responsibility of the resettled refugee or family[12]. An example of this is the restriction of the government’s Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS):  Previously, refugees who were waiting to have their protection claims approved and were struggling to meet living and healthcare needs, were connected with the SRSS[13]. This government-funded support program provided people with access to suitable psychiatric and counselling services, subsidised medication, as well as legal support, and a living allowance.[14] All of which are necessary for transporting someone from outside the social system, to within. Since 2017, the Australian government has placed copious restrictions on who can access the SRSS; if you study, have transferred more than $1000 into a bank account over 12 months, or come by plane, you can no longer access this level of support[15]. Without social support, refugees within the community are forced into unregulated labour as a means to survive.

Vulnerable migrant groups have fragile economic rights, made only more flimsy by the coercive employment industries that accept them. The labour done by refugees is often menial, underpaid, and unprotected. Temporary and undocumented migrants are concentrated in unregulated sectors with a lower union density, such as smaller businesses or agricultural work[16]. These unchecked labour markets represent a web of vulnerable and low-wage positions that do not allow for progression or economic autonomy. This web is articulated in a UNSW report on ‘Temporary Migrant Workers in Australia’: 

  1. Migrant workers have no political agency[17]

Migration status and visa type fully determine the employment conditions allowed. Refugees who are deemed to have come to Australia unlawfully[18] are given a Bridging E Visa (BEV), which allows them to stay in Australia while they are making arrangements to leave. Subclasses of this visa allocate incredibly restricted working rights and only three months of study[19]. These visas are arbitrary as there are no unlawful methods of seeking asylum under international or Australian law.

In 2018, the Refugee Council found that 29,166 people were living on a BEV and 6,790 of these did not have any working rights at all[20]. However, to arrange financial stability, people on this visa need to access money to arrange to leave the country. If people on a BEV were found working, they could risk detention or immediate deportation[21]. These constrictive laws mean immigrants are accepting “poor living and working conditions” in exchange for the ability to secure money[22]

2. Non-classification as workers[23]

Often large groups of migrants are not classified as workers under Australian legal frameworks but ‘working-holiday makers’, undocumented, or international students[24]. This structural framework of legislated labour can lead to non-compliance within industries that exploit[25]. The workers are not required to be covered by the compensation safety nets or working rights available to skilled migrants, citizens, and permanent residents. 

3) No recognition of previous qualifications or skills[26]

The Refugee Council of Australia identified three barriers that prevent skilled refugees from re-entering the occupation or industry they were in before they left their origin country:

  1. There are high educational costs in completing bridging courses and supplementary exams. These costs are usually unaffordable for refugees, who are provided low levels of welfare within Australia.
  2. There is a lack of access to affordable translation services that can help refugees retain or prove their former qualifications and careers.
  3. Regulatory bodies are creating increasingly complex hurdles for skilled refugees to have their work experience recognized.

The Australian government has legislated a system that forces people into unsustainable and unequal employment. Vulnerable workers in insecure industries face a myriad of barriers to the self-sufficient resettlement process that the UNHCR prioritised. Government funding needs to be redirected towards incentivised resettlement[27]. This integration would incorporate: personalised career mentoring, university and apprenticeship programs that provide job skill opportunities or stimulus packages to employers who provide jobs for this vulnerable population[28]. Refugees are not problems to be pushed to the fringes of society. The government should create social and economic platforms in recognition of the benefits these people can bring. 


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