Australian migrants struggle to find work

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Media captionThe BBC's Phil Mercer in Sydney reports on the increasingly tough labour market for migrants in Australia.

To watch chef Zeng Qing Chen carve duck meat into moon-shaped entrees in a steam-filled kitchen at his Chinese restaurant is to see a master craftsman at work.

Born in Beijing, he spoke only Mandarin when he settled in Australia in the late 1980s.

He now owns a flourishing business in the solidly middle-class Chatswood district of Sydney, but in the early days a lack of English was a real obstacle. Unable to find work, he went to college.

"The language is the first priority to mix with the locals, so I went to school to learn English. When you have English you can communicate and you can start a new life," he explains.

"I am working hard, seven days a week, no break, no holiday. I deserve to have a good income, so life is good, and family is good, children are good. Happy life, but working hard!"

Other migrants, however, have found that speaking English alone has not been enough to help them break into their chosen fields.


Recent figures published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that one in three migrants who are in employment found it tough to land their first job, a figure virtually unchanged from the same survey conducted three years ago.

The Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (FECCA) says that new migrants endure far higher rates of joblessness than other Australians.

"The rate of unemployment of people newly arrived from non-English speaking backgrounds is double [the national average]. That is concerning to us," says the FECCA's Italian-born chairperson, Joe Caputo.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Australia's jobless rate hit a 12-year high in July because of its slowing economy

A record monthly increase in jobs last month has sent Australia's creeping unemployment rate into retreat from a 12-year high of 6.4% reached in July.

But a more robust labour market, into which about 120,000 positions were added in August, disguises a far gloomier outlook for migrants and temporary residents.

Job discrimination

Recent settlers often struggle to find work in Australia because of a lack of relevant experience or references, language problems and prejudice.

Most eventually overcome these initial struggles, and become part of the kaleidoscopic fabric of their adopted homeland, but it can be a frustrating journey.

"We know that there is a degree of discrimination," Mr Caputo says. "Often people who have got names such as Mohammed or Abdul are not even getting that opportunity of being interviewed.

"We often find that people have to change their names. Once they change their names at least they get to the interviewing table," he says, adding that employment is important to making sure migrants become part of society and not alienated from it.

History of migration

More than 40% of Australians were either born overseas or have at least one foreign-born parent. Theirs is a modern country built by successive waves of settlers.

The issue of immigration can be a battlefield, especially over asylum seekers who come by sea, where the debate is divisive and often toxic.

But Tim Harcourt, an economist at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) believes there is a general acceptance that broader immigration has been a critical foundation of Australia's economic success.

"There's an overwhelming consensus in Australia that multiculturalism and immigration has been a good thing," he says.

"If you think of Westfield, Bing Lee or Myer - any of our great [retail] icons - they have been started by someone with probably no English and no capital in their pocket who have come to this country. You wouldn't have this great entrepreneurial spirit without immigration."

There is little or no appetite in Australia, according to Mr Harcourt, for stricter language controls on new migrants because it would be an unsavoury reminder of the "White Australia Policy" that used a controversial dictation test to stop non-whites entering the country.

While there are sections of Australian society that consider immigration levels too high, the majority view is that diversity has brought prosperity.

"It is quite clear the links between immigration and trade, and foreign investment have improved Australia's per capita income," Mr Harcourt adds.

Deep frustrations

Image caption John Kon first entered Australia as a refugee before becoming a naturalised citizen

Nevertheless, the frustrations of migrants trying to find skilled work is evident in the Sydney suburb of Auburn, one of Australia's most multicultural neighbourhoods.

John Kon, a young refugee from South Sudan, is a community worker who has a degree in medical science, and has ambitions to become a doctor.

"I had to struggle actually," Mr Kon says. "For the first three years when I first came to Australia I had to struggle to go to school to learn more, and then I had to go to the factories.

"Getting a factory job was really very difficult too, so I had to keep trying until I got my first job."

For his friend, Akok Ngor, a job delivering pizzas and work in a warehouse helped to fund a university education, although a prized job as a project manager in the construction industry remains elusive.

"I am working as a casual bus driver and I am holding a bachelor of business degree. Can you believe that?" he says.

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