The labour market integration of migrants presents a persistent conundrum. The Australian story – as that of other migrant destinations – is largely told as a success story: the skilled migration program with its focus on bringing human capital into the country seems to be working well. Human capital is objectively measured through a points system allocating points for educational qualifications, work experience, English proficiency and age.
The success story holds despite the fact that it is obvious to anyone who cares to look that migrants in fact do have trouble finding jobs or finding jobs at their level (the proverbial migrant taxi driver …). Migrant un- and under-employment is a persistent finding of research, too (e.g., this report). However, it is possible to continue to tell the success story as one of a rational labour market where different outcomes are due to objective differences in human capital because there is the perpetual imponderable of English language proficiency. The assumption is that migrants are being held back by their lack of English and all they have to do is to learn English properly. Migrants who speak good English (whatever that may be) are assumed to compete on a level playing field.
Discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity or country of origin is illegal in Australia. Even so, researchers, as well as community activists, have consistently argued that it exists, even if hidden under the cloak of ‘limited English proficiency.’
One of the researchers at the forefront of investigating migrant settlement outcomes in Australia, Val Colic-Peisker, has just produced a brilliant new piece of research confirming that “non-English-speaking background” does not always equal “non-English-speaking background” and that country of origin does matter when it comes to migrants’ employment outcomes.
In ‘Ethnics’ and ‘Anglos’ in the Labour Force: Advance Australia Fair, Colic-Peisker uses Australian Bureau of Statistics data to analyse the labour market outcomes of long-term migrants from ten different origin groups. Her sample is based on the following criteria:
- Long-term migrants (people who have been in Australia for at least 10 years)
- Vocational or tertiary qualifications
- Employed at the time of the 2006 census
- From a non-English-speaking background but speaking English ‘very well’ (as self-recorded in the census)
The labour market outcomes of migrants who met these criteria and who came from eight different countries of origin (Chile, China, Croatia, Germany, India, Philippines, Russia, Somalia) were then compared to each other and to two other groups: the Australia-born and the UK-born (i.e. a native speaker cohort, who also continues to be the largest source country for migrants to Australia).
If the Australian labour market were indeed rational and the result of nothing more than objective human capital assessments, then a similar portion of people in each origin group should be working at a similar level; i.e. most people with vocational training would be expected to work in medium-skilled or paraprofessional jobs and most tertiary educated people would be expected to work in paraprofessional or professional jobs.
Granting a ‘native speaker bonus’, as Colic-Peisker does in her hypothesis, one could assume that the Australia-born and the UK-born fare somewhat better than all the other groups – but there should be no differences between those other groups.
Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way, as the diagram above shows. Among the tertiary-qualified, the Australia-born and the UK-born do have a slight advantage but the outcomes of two other European groups, Germany- and Russia-born, are quite similar to theirs. So, the labour market is quite rationally working on human capital criteria for the Europeans.
What is much more interesting is the other end of the scale where the India-, Somalia- and Philippines-born congregate. The table sums up the findings. These three groups are employed significantly below their educational level.
There may be many reasons for this: Somalis as a group are relatively recent arrivals to multicultural Australia and so are likely to be perceived as more cultural distant than members of migrant groups who have been around for longer. As a group, they may also suffer from the combined stigmas of being African, being refugees and being Muslim.
As a matter of fact, I found the fact that, all things being equal, employment outcomes are worst for migrants from the Philippines much more surprising. The ‘obvious’ prejudices that may operate in the case of the Somalis don’t seem to apply to this group. Additionally, persistent linguistic difference through accent etc. is less likely to be at play for this group than for other Asian groups as English is one of the official languages of the Philippines.
The likely explanation for the underemployment of the Philippines-born has little to do with ethnic discrimination but with gender and occupational field: most migrants from the Philippines in Australia are women and so they may have put their careers on hold to raise families and, upon re-entry into the workforce, ended up in jobs they are over-qualified for, as is a common female experience, irrespective of country of origin. Furthermore, many Philippines-born tertiary educated migrants work in the medical field, a field where the recognition of prior qualifications is much harder to achieve than in most other fields.
Throwing gender and occupational field into the mix further demonstrates the complexity of the issue of employment outcomes: whatever else is may be, the labour market is not rational and people on the move are not a set of objective human capital traits on the move; mobility re-calibrates the value of each of these supposedly objective traits and throws a number of ‘intangibles’ into the mix.
Colic-Peisker, Val (2011). ‘Ethnics’ and ‘Anglos’ in the Labour Force: Advancing Australia Fair? Journal of Intercultural Studies, 32 (6), 637-654 DOI: 10.1080/07256868.2011.618108