In the past couple of years, I have been a passenger in Sydney taxis driven, inter alia, by an agricultural engineer from India, a civil engineer from Somalia, a surgeon from Vietnam, an MBA graduate from Pakistan, an architect from Iran, and an IT professional from Egypt. I don’t recall ever being in a Sydney taxi driven by a native-born person. While this may not mean much as I don’t catch taxis all that often, I’ve been in taxis driven by native-born Australians in Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory. In contrast to migrant taxi drivers, none of them had tertiary qualifications. The overqualified migrant taxi driver has by now become a stock character of Australian literature, e.g., the taxi-driving former orchestra conductor from Vietnam featured in Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist.

The deskilling of skilled migrants is not unique to Australia but also a feature of Canada’s skilled migration program. In a recent article, “Survival Employment,” Gillian Creese and Brandy Wiebe look beyond the statistics of migrant un- and underemployment. The researchers interviewed 61 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in Vancouver to uncover their experiences of re-entering the labor market post-migration. Most of their interviewees were tertiary-educated, most of them came from Anglophone countries and had been educated in English, and most of them had pre-migration professional experience. And they had one more thing in common: post-migration, they were mostly long-term underemployed:

Their educational credentials and experience in Africa went unrecognized; their ‘‘African-English’’ accents posed additional barriers to many types of employment; and their additional Canadian education often failed to translate into the expected occupational rewards. (p. 9)

Deskilling plays out differently for men and women because the labor market is not only racialized but also gendered. Men don’t have their qualifications and experience recognized but there are still jobs for them in the production sector and other blue collar work. Women’s qualifications and experiences aren’t recognized, either, but, unlike their male counterparts, they don’t even have access to blue collar work (which is reserved for men – personally, I’ve never seen a female taxi driver other than on TV …). At the same time, they don’t have access to the lower rungs of the feminized Canadian labor market such as retail and service work, either, because they don’t “look and sound right” for customer-service. All that is left to the women is cleaning work and some light manufacturing. Consequently, they invested more heavily into continuing education, usually at a lower level than warranted by existing credentials and experience, and following the gendered advice of settlement agencies, which pushed them into care work.

What is the point of having a skilled migration program if the labor market works to transform people who entered the country as “skilled migrants” into “uneducated Africans” once they are landed immigrants?! One of the interviewees, Lwanzo from Zimbabwe, sums up her experience of education and migration in this way:

When you are coming here, they say they cannot accept people who are not educated. They are accepting people who are educated, and when they come here, they treat them like uneducated people. What’s the use? Why not take people who are not educated then, if what you want are janitors, you know. Bring people who are janitors then, who’ll do that job gladly. Because I know people from home wouldn’t go to school if they came here to work as janitors. Janitors would do that job very gladly. But I’ll not do that happily. I will not do it happily. I’ll complain, you know. (p. 12)

The human capital assumptions underlying skilled migration are obviously flawed if job openings are mostly in unskilled areas and skilled migrants need to be deskilled in order to participate in the labor market. Creese and Wiebe further demonstrate that the neo-liberal reduction of government agencies to little more than “job clubs and resume services” also serves to push migrants immediately into “survival work” – as against the focus of an earlier era on building bridges to adequate post-migration employment. Finally, as I have also argued repeatedly (e.g., here and here), using “accent” and “local experience” as pretexts for exclusion from desirable employment has become the new face of racism without racists. Ultimately, while there may well be no individual people who can be accused of bad faith, these factors conspire to turn skilled migration in many cases into a broken promise. As a result, the interviewees in this study lost not only economically in terms of low wages, insecurity and unemployment but also in terms of their dignity and respect. Creese, G., & Wiebe, B. (2009). ‘Survival Employment’: Gender and Deskilling among African Immigrants in Canada International Migration DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2435.2009.00531.x

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • vahid

    Thanks for the insightful post, Ingrid!

    I think the same system that denies the needs and interests of workers will, in the long run, produce in them a false understanding of what their needs and interests actually are.


  • gregh

    excellent article Ingrid – I have thought the same myself (mainly use taxis when in Melbourne). I was talking with a driver, nice guy – Indian, engineer doing an MBA. – and said I was an academic. His response was – In my country, sir, they would treat you with respect.

    I got the subtext

  • Vera

    Thanks for an excellent post, Ingrid!

    I think Language on the Move readers interested in issues raised here will also find Bill Collopy’s article, “Australia racist? Well, der!” useful. The article was posted today at the below url:

  • It is not a case of skilled migration, but one of the reservations I have about bringing my husband’s parents to Australia (family migration) is exactly this. Their English is very limited, and it will be his father, a tradesman of over 35 year experience, who will be most affected by the move. He will have to improve his English at least to the functional level to be able to find work, but I often cannot bear the thought of him going through all sorts of difficulties in learning and using English, and more importantly, losing his confidence as a professional worker and a breadwinner. Language remains as one of the most upsetting issues in our decision-making process.

    • gregh

      one of my co-workers is Vietnamese and it is clearly the case she is discriminated against because of her English (which is pretty good but strongly accented). She’s been relegated to more or less a secretarial position even though she has high level research skills. However, re the onlineopinion article, I think Australia is incredibly mainstreamed. Any sort of ‘other’ is ostracised and reduced, and the more ‘other’ is the person the greater is the denial of their worth.

  • Khan

    Racism without racists is undoubtedly a very thought-provoking piece so much so that I have come up with my own policy of multiculturalism imagining myself as the head of the imaginary state for a few seconds. Here goes my policy. The name of my country is Utopia

    Utopia affirms the value and dignity of all citizens with regard to their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliations.
    Mulitculturalism is fundamental to our belief that some citizens are more equal than others. We ensure that all citizens keep their identitites so that we know who has the access to which job market.

    Our multiculturalism encourages racial and ethnic discriminations and the gaps in cross-cultural and inter-cultural understanding.

    Mutual disrespect develop common attitude which helps new citizens at the periphery and old citizens in the core.

    All citizens are theoretically guranteed equality before the law and equality of opportunity with regard to their origin, language and colour.

    Our diveristy is a strategy which helps us know and place who speak many languages and understand culture to Pizza delivery jobs, house-keeping, security and cab-driving.

    We believe in multiculturalism and promote it in such subtle manners that who experience it can only know what it means. So welcome to the land of Eutopia.

    Thanks for inspirational piece!


  • kls

    Thank you ingrid for an insightful article into a very complex problem. This racism occurs because qualifications from non-english speaking countries are either not recognised or downgraded – by the Australian government overseas qualifications unit – if a refugee can pay for this process to happen. That non-recognition or downgrading affects not only employment prospects but also entry into university if a person wants to use those qualifications as recognised prior learning. Various job providers and Centrelink also pressure migrants and refugees to take any job, especially a low paid one. There is also no recognition of overseas work experience and few programs that assist refugees into work experience placements appropriate to their skills to provide some Australian work experience as a way into the Australian employment market. All of this adds up to Institutionalised Racism.

  • Hongyan

    Thanks, Ingrid, this post is really thought-provoking!

    Australia always boasts its harmonious multicultural coexistence and the tolerance for different skin colors of its residents, no matter whether they are temporary or permanent. Comparatively speaking, Australia seemingly behaves much better than a few other developed countries concerning racism issues. However, quite often, we can see or even experience visible and invisible racism without racists in our daily life. As Ingrid put in the blogpost, skilled migrants had to dequalify or deskill themselves in order to find jobs in the new country. English proficiency is the first visible threshold. But if you are not typical Australian with typical English accent and appearance, there will be so many different thresholds waiting for you in pursuit of typical Australian life. Thats racism without racists!

  • Iliana

    Hello Ingrid, finally to read something I always thought. I do not live in Australia, I live in the UK but originally I am from Bulgaria. I have been in this country for more than 10 years now but I still cant find a job responding to my level of qualification – I am a holder of Masters degree in Philology. I know many people from my country who live here with unrecognized skills: There is a fish factory in the nearby town where 2/3 of the workers are from Bulgaria only because the employer provides them with work-permit for this place. I have met many of the people working there to find out most of them are very well educated people, people with university degrees cleaning fish in horrible conditions with a racist attitude from the employer… I’ve heard a lot here – they only want skilled migrants but to do what? Just to work as a cleaners or night time or weekend shifts in a jobs that locals don’t even know exist…

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