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How migration helped build Australia

18 November 20140 comments

Migrants have brought vital skills and labour to help to build Australia’s economy and society at critical times in the nation’s history as well as contributing to economically sustainable population numbers, a new study has found.

From small business owners and labourers in the post war period to skilled tradesmen and factory workers in the 1970s and 80s and then professional engineers, doctors and teachers in the Twenty-first Century, new Australians have made important contributions in the development of the nation, the study says.

Titled ‘Migrant employment patterns in Australia: post Second World War to the present’ and commissioned by settlement agency AMES, the study has charted the employment experiences of successive waves of migrants.

It found that “Australia’s migration program has evolved since the Second World War in accordance with the political, social and economic priorities that reflect the government of the day”.

“The aftermath of World War Two signalled a need to defend the country and attracted workers to fill newly created jobs in the post-war boom period. This resulted in an influx of migrants from Europe,” said the study, which analysed migration and employment data over the past 60 years as well as reviewing published research on migrant employment.

“The 1970s and 1980s heralded an era of multiculturalism and the arrival of refugees from war-torn South East Asia. In the last 15 years the emphasis has been on skilled migrants driven by the need to address the decline in workers due to an ageing population and skills shortages,” it said.

In the post war era there was high demand for low skilled workers and migrants from Southern and Western Europe who came to take up jobs in manufacturing, construction, steelworks, mines, factories and on the roads, the report said.

Many others who came at this time were small businessmen or small farmers who started businesses within their own communities such as milk bars, delicatessens, cafés and newspapers.

“In the early 1950s nearly half of all Greek, Italian and Yugoslav born males were employers and or self-employed, compared to only 20 per cent of Australian-born males,” the study said.

With manufacturing at its peak development from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, the factory workforce grew from 830,000 in 1947 to 1.22 million in 1971. A third of manufacturing workers were born overseas.

Many migrants took second or third jobs to be able to buy their own homes and provide for the children’s education, the study found.

One of the largest single employers of migrants through this era was the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Of the scheme’s 100,000 employees, 70 per cent were migrants who came from 30 countries.

The study found that during the 1970s and 1980s, migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds continued to be employed in semi-skilled or unskilled labour or production-line jobs, particularly in manufacturing and construction.

“In contrast, migrants from mainly English-speaking countries had similar labour market experience to Australian born workers and were concentrated in white-collar service sector or in skilled manufacturing jobs,” the study said.

It found that many migrant women were a cheap source of labour for manufacturing employers in the 1970s and 1980s.

“They were concentrated in a narrow range of poorly paid and low status positions where the work tended to be monotonous and repetitive with little or no job security and a high risk of occupational injury,” the report said.

These jobs provided very little opportunity for upward occupational mobility and the demise of manufacturing in the 1980s saw the numbers of women employed in the sector decline by 50 per cent, it said.

“In 1981, 76 per cent of Yugoslav-born women, 73 per cent of Turkish women and 74 per cent of Vietnamese women worked in trades or process work occupations compared with 36 per cent of the Australian-born population,” it said.

“Other migrant women not employed in the textile clothing and footwear industry worked in food, beverages and tobacco, metal products, electronics and electrical components, plastics, rubber and paper products industries.”

It found that the Twenty-first Century has brought significant changes to work in Australia and a move away from manufacturing to the service, business administration and care industries.

“This is reflected in the types of skill shortages seen, including in the areas of health, medicine, teaching, child care, nursing and engineering. The emphasis on skilled migration means that there have been a larger number of people entering Australia with post-school qualifications,” the study said.

“The number of people arriving in Australia in 2006 with a bachelor degree (44 per cent) has increased three-fold since 1991 (15 per cent).

Researcher and the report’s author Dr Lisa Thomson said the study highlighted the impact migrants have had in Australia’s economic success.

“Migration has had a positive economic, social and cultural impact on Australia. Migrants have built Australia with their labour, skills and traditions. They have demonstrated their resilience and adaptability to new challenges and surroundings and shown a disposition for hard work and sacrifices in order to establish themselves in a new country.

“Work has always and continues to be an important way for migrants to participate in Australian society. Without migrant labour Australia would not be the modern, vibrant, advanced economy it is today,” Dr Thomson said.

Recent migrant and engineer Alireza Shayan says he hopes to contribute to Australia while also building his career.

“I came to Australia for the opportunities it presents but of course I want to contribute to the society,” said the 35-year-old from Iran.

“Australia has been very welcoming to myself and my wife and it is a well organised country with good systems and organisations in place.

“I have travelled around the world and Australian people are very welcoming and the society is very good at absorbing new migrants and helping them settle,” he said.

Photograph: ‘Rose Lewis, from Warsaw, is now a delicatessen proprietor in Melbourne’ (Photograher: Georg Lindstrom)

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist