Average employment outcomes of the tertiary-educated (Source: Colic-Peisker 2011, p. 647)

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.

(Source: Colic-Peiser 2011, p. 644)

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.

ResearchBlogging.org 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

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
  • Nick

    Fair and equal opportunity in Australia are myths. One needs to look at these statistics and look around in the country to see the inequality among different ethnicities. Skilled migrants are on average better qualified than Australians. But you will find many 3rd world country skilled migrants as cab drivers, (building) painters and other low paid jobs –many of them even educated in the west. On business and first class flights, you don’t see any of them. In business and first class lounges they serve tea and coffee. Businesses prefer backpackers from the UK, Ireland to skilled migrants from non English speaking countries, especially not from the Middle East & Africa. English proficiency and local experience are two excuses for white Australia. Very often the accent plays a role. Once I experienced that the owner of the company where I worked sacked a Chinese worker because he couldn’t stand her accent. I regret not taken that bas… to court. The second pretence they use is local experience, which is not used very loudly, as they know there is no professional & business rationality behind it. A professional who has lived in Australia for more than two or three years knows more about Australia than a backpacker from Ireland, UK, US, etc.

    • Thanks, Nick. The thing is that some NESB skilled migrants are no longer putting up with that ‘pretense’. Sick of being discriminated, those who can afford to do so are leaving Australia for home or other countries where they can draw on their skills more successfully and where they as migrants/returning residents are more appreciated (see examples; here and here). It’d be interesting to see research on this type of migrants – any available?

  • Donna Butorac

    Thanks for sharing and discussing the paper by Colic-Peisker, Ingrid. It is very well put, and provides further evidence of what we discover, at the local level, from riding in cabs and listening to the experience of settlement English students in Australia. We need to encourage the inclusion of research by people like you, and Colic-Peisker, in the framing and delivery of, for example, the AMEP, which accepts the idea that English language proficiency is what mediates successful settlement in Australia. I say this while recognsing that ideology about English language is an integral part of the dominant imagining of the nation state, and therefore not easy to influence.

  • The article reminds me of the experience that Donna Fujimoto, a Japanese American, had as an English teacher in Japan. Although she speaks American English as her native language and although she cannot speak any Japanese because she is a third-generation Japanese American, this is what happened to her when she was looking for a job as an English teacher in Japan:

    In the first year I was in Japan, I applied for a short-term, high position to teach English. I was totally shocked when I was not even considered, but a French woman, who wanted to teach French and admitted openly to others that her English was not very good, got the job… Everyone knows that Caucasians have an advantage over Asians in such teaching positions, but they shy away from talking about it. (Color, race, and English language teaching: shades of meaning, p.44).

  • loy

    The uncritical “success story” perspective is often held by those who believe (consciously or unconsciously) in benevolent prejudice – a feeling that one has done what is best for others even if that very act perpetuates the inferior positions of those “others” in the community.
    With regards the English language proficiency requirement, it is clear to most who care to consider the issues in more depth that IELTS scores are often used to mask other factors which are otherwise ‘illegal:’ accent, race, gender, skin colour, country of origin, etc.
    In the case of the Filipino skilled workers, most of them, I believe, suffer from double jeopardy: (1) one must re- or up-skill before being considered especially for a position in the medical field such as nursing because the very skills which have been recognized in the first place, hence, the demand for their labour was earned from a non-Australian institution and (2) although the majority of them are educated in English (English has been in the Philippines for over a century now), they need to show evidence of this through IELTS – which can still disadvantage them despite using English for most of their lives especially when their other languages are of phonological features quite distant from those of English which then impacts quite negatively on what is perceived as acceptable phonological features during an IELTS test.

  • loy

    Here is a recent experience I had that speaks on what Colic-Peisker calls “native speaker bonus:”

    The other day I called my local electricity provider (it seems most of Australia are with the recent increase in energy costs) to ask them why I should stay with them and not do the ‘big switch.’ I talked to someone who spoke a very thick Irish accent and for the life of me I could not understand at all most of what he said. (I do have a few Irish friends and I understand them fine but this one was just incomprehensible.) I tried managing our communication by paraphrasing after every sentence to get a confirmation from him that I understood him correctly. The strategy did not work and I had to call again so I could be re-directed to someone else I could understand. I just wonder – given that the work includes detailed explanations to clients on different products – how did he get the job? Surely, English language proficiency (whatever that means) would have been one of the main criteria?

  • SueD

    I think there is too much focus on ‘language proficiency’ in this discussion. As a qualified ESL professional of over 25 years from one of the ‘disadvantaged’ groups mentioned, I would say it’s the ‘cultural fit’ in addition to language proficiency that determines whether a person gets discriminated against or not.

    The AMEP is denied to skilled migrants from CALD communities on grounds of ‘Functional Proficiency’ but the benefits arising from the cross cultural issues it confronts head on could be enormous, far outweighing any considerations of cost.