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Undervalued woman partner migrants in the Australian workforce: an elephant in the room?

21 July 20170 comments

Last year more than a quarter of a million people came to live in Australia. Most new arrivals came from non-English speaking backgrounds and many came as partners and spouses of Australian citizens or residents, or as the partner of primary applicant migrants. Partner migrants, often women and often highly skilled and qualified face extraordinary barriers to finding professional work. In terms of developing cogent and sustainable migration and employment policies, this is the proverbial elephant in the room.

Our research examines the challenges migrant women face in gaining employment and achieving economic and social participation in Australia.  We propose policy and labour market adjustments that would give migrant women more opportunity to enter the workforce and allow the economy to harness their often significant skills and experience which currently are undervalued and neglected.

Migrant from non-English speaking backgrounds can be disadvantaged to find meaningful employment because of a lack of English and recognition of overseas qualifications, and an absence of social and professional networks.  Migrant women on partner visas are often more disadvantaged than their male counterparts. They can find themselves in a vulnerable position as entrants into a new and unfamiliar labour market. This is despite the fact that they are almost as well qualified as their partners in the Skilled stream and much more qualified than Australian-born workers.

Partner migrants make a strong positive contribution to the available pool of skills in Australia. However, their employment outcomes in Australia do not reflect the diversity of talents and skills they bring to Australia with many working in low skilled jobs after living for more than 12 months in Australia. Like others facing long term unemployment, this can lead to social and economic isolation, financial dependency and health issues affecting not only them but also their families and children.

There are a number of barriers in Australia that can make it more challenging for women from Non-English speaking backgrounds to find employment commensurate with their skills and professional experience. Some of these barriers are:  (i) limited employer understanding of temporary spouse visas and work rights, (ii) increased focus on family and child rearing responsibilities, (iii) lack of strong local networks and support  (e.g. to assist with childcare), (iv) longer employment gap due to taking more responsibility for initial family resettlement, (v) social isolation, including loss of confidence and difficulties developing professional networks, (vi) moving to rural and regional areas as a trailing spouse, where there are less employment and transport options.

In most cases, partner migrants are ineligible for at least the first two years for income support through Centrelink. This means in practice they are also excluded from formal job searching assistance provided through jobactive and must rely on their limited new family networks in Australia to find work.   Migrant women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds can face discrimination on the basis of both their race and sex, which can be direct or indirect. There are also instances where migrant women ‘typically put their husbands’ career prospects above their own’ even though they have a similar level of human capital (e.g. education qualifications, occupational credentials, earnings and career achievements). This can have a significant impact on later career prospects due to longer career gap. Their progress into professional employment can be further compounded by the ‘bamboo ceiling’ and ‘glass ceiling’ effects and other discriminatory employment patterns where career progression of people is limited by their gender, ethnicity and country of origin.

For those with limited English, a significant source of support for learning functional English, building network and finding work comes from the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), funded by the federal Australian Government: Department of Education and Training.  This Australia-wide program provides a limited number of free English classes for eligible migrants to learn functional English focusing on practical language requirements for settlement including employment.

Recent research from AMES Australia, suggests that the AMEP is a crucial source of employment support and advice for partner migrants from non-English speaking background. Clients in an employment focussed English language program under the AMEP, many of whom were women partner migrants reported that increased confidence, better understanding of Australia’s recruitment and work cultures and wider professional and social networks they built through the program helped them to find work in Australia. A number of clients had also found a pathway through the program and participated in further education and training

While successful in connecting people to employment, the quality of the jobs was often a poor match with their professional qualifications and pre-migration work experience.  Most of those attending AMEP English for employment classes went into low paid, low skill and causal work such as in hotel housekeeping, cleaning, retail, aged care or childcare, irrespective of their tertiary qualifications and/or overseas work experience.

Employment focussed support through English classes such as the AMEP is essential, however wider structural change is necessary to capitalise on the skills and professional experience brought by women partner migrants from NESB.   Strategies for change could include (i) simplifying the process of overseas qualification recognition of migrants by Australian employers, (ii) increase awareness among employers about the full right to work for partners on temporary visas, (iii) access to childcare benefits and rebates so that women with children can look for work, participate in the workforce or further education, (iv) target funding for employment focused programs to support migrant women to find work commensurate with their skills (v) develop targeted ‘job clubs’ in rural and remote regions to connect migrant women with local communities.

Investment to reduce the obstacles that hinder migrant women from full participation in the workforce is beneficial for individual and family migration settlement. From an economic point of view, it seems logical to better align talented migrant women to jobs that utilise their skills in Australia.  Improved social status and economic empowerment would contribute to successful resettlement of not only the women partner migrants but also their families. This will further enable the newly arrived women a meaningful participation in the Australian society. Meaningful and full participation of women partner migrants is important not only for them but also for the greater Australian society.


Monica O’Dwyer and Rizwana Shamshad