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How do refugees fare in the Australian workplace?

"One of the biggest issues is gaining access and trust."

A prestigious research career investigating labour migration has given Professor Ingrid Nielsen from Deakin Business School unique insight for her current project that explores how refugees fare in the Australian workplace.

Funded by the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects’ Scheme, the collaborative project with Professor Alex Newman, also from Deakin Business School, Professor Russell Smyth from Monash University and Professor Giles Hirst from the Australian National University, focuses on strengthening the psychological resources of refugees in their bid for sustainable employment and wellbeing.

Amidst the current swirl of discussion surrounding Australia’s immigration policies, refugee intakes and re-settlement processes, Professor Nielsen’s study is a timely investigation that builds on her widely-respected portfolio of research.

‘This project is really a natural extension of my research career that has focussed on a range of labour migration contexts,’ she explains. ‘But the one thing that’s common to all the studies I’ve done around the world is that migration is a topic that often goes hand-in-hand with extreme hardship, persecution and vulnerability. That is often the case irrespective of the geographical context – and the migrants who come to Australia through refugee programs are prime examples of the extraordinary lengths people will go to escape that hardship and afford themselves and their children a secure environment.’

Professor Nielsen, who has a PhD in psychology and is Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Business and Law, says that a stand-out difference in the Australian context is that many refugees are skilled professionals.

‘We have medical doctors, lawyers and highly-skilled professionals who have escaped various forms of persecution in their native country. But almost always, they end up in unskilled work,’ she says. ‘With the right support and incentives in place, the Australian government could quite reasonably begin to shift this country to a position where refugees’ skills are leveraged both for the benefit of refugees themselves, and the benefit of the nation.'

Professor Nielsen’s migration research is widely published and includes the British Journal of Industrial Relations, Human Resource Management, International Journal of Human Resource Management, Urban Studies, Social Indicators Research and Journal of Urban Affairs.

While she has researched Asian and European migration contexts, her international reputation stems from her work on internal labour migration and wellbeing in China – a topic that sparked her interest more than 15 years ago.

‘I was in a role at Monash University with senior people who were working in this area. I found myself very drawn to it conceptually so I developed my own stream of research which led to lots of publications,’ she recalls. ‘Everything I do is heavily quantitative and reflects my training in psychology – but it builds on one general story which is trying to understand the labour market position of rural migrants in China. The phenomenon of off-farm migration in China is one of history’s biggest migration flows.’

Each year, around 150 million peasants migrate from rural to urban areas of China for work. These rural-urban migrants have been characterised as the fuel that stokes the fire of the global economy. But because of China’s complex structural barriers to manage population, these workers are unable to reside permanently in the urban areas. Consequently, rural-urban migrants are denied access to a range of urban social protections, benefits and services, rendering them marginalised in the cities in which they work.

‘Technically, they’re not considered as residents of cities so they’re living on the fringe and outside the normal structures of support. This means their migration is circular. They always travel back home again during Chinese spring festival, around Chinese New Year, and then return to the urban areas,’ she explains.

While the cities’ infrastructures are squeezed to absorb the high migration numbers, an overriding issue is that the majority of rural-urban migrant workers are unskilled – at best they may only have a basic primary school education.

‘So they’re going into construction, services, manufacturing and areas that are falling through regulatory safety nets in terms of protection. Many end up working in horrendous conditions in what we colloquially call “sweat shops”. Unfortunately some of these are behind the instantly-recognisable global brands that Australian consumers interact with,’ she says. ‘If consumers actually witnessed the conditions that some of these people are forced to endure, I believe many would think twice about supporting some of these global brands.’

While one strand of Professor Nielsen’s research has examined the way China’s economic reform influences the barriers and access to social protection, she has also investigated population wellbeing across a range of areas relating to migration patterns.

‘This includes looking at it from an organisational perspective – commitment, satisfaction and other issues – and examining different outcome variables that are influenced by migration and the many contexts in which migrants live,’ she explains.

Professor Nielsen says the impact of her research around social protection is currently contributing to China’s dialogue around issues of reform – particularly the need for migrant workers to access social security benefits.

‘The research is also contributing to understanding the different management practices that need to be adopted to manage this unique situation. Migration in China is unlike migration anywhere else in the word.’

With Australia’s refugee policies a key focus in recent federal elections – and prime ministerships – Professor Nielsen considers that migration issues will continue to be front and centre in the nation’s political and social dialogue.  

‘It’s the same in other key receiving destinations in Europe even though we actually pale against the refugee crisis there. While it’s not easy to work with refugee communities, or to find a foot in the door, it’s a rewarding area to work in and you meet some amazingly resilient people.’

To determine the factors that contribute to refugees finding and maintaining work in Australia, Professor Nielsen and her colleagues have conducted a field study of over 200 refugees from the Afghani, Sudanese, Sri Lankan, Iraqi, Iranian and Pakistani communities who have resettled in Melbourne. The project draws on psychological resource theories and also highlights ostracism and exclusion as some of the key challenges.

‘Our work is to ensure that the focus is very much on the end user, so we’ve developed workshops around building resilience and positive psychological resources. The refugees come to these workshops and they’re taught skills about how to find work, how to keep work, how to build their own internal, personal, psychological resources. The aim is to get them involved and to see the personal benefits.’

Through the workshops, practical approaches and applications are adopted to help refugees deal with stress, tackle negative thinking traps, build productive relationships, manage their thinking and use their strengths.

But one of the biggest challenges, says Professor Nielsen, is gaining access and trust.

‘Many refugees are so traumatised and it’s still very fresh. And because there has been very little academic research on refugees in Australia, the communities are wary, they don’t know why they’re being studied and they’re cautious about what they say … so it can be a difficult context in which to work.’

However she is optimistic that bridges are being built across Australia’s multicultural communities and is hopeful that within a decade, Melbourne may be a positive exemplar of successful migrant integration.

‘It takes a few generations to create a shift in thinking but it’s slowly changing. This next generation – today’s children – are much more connected to each other, to information and to education. This has great capacity to play a positive role … and most importantly children, by their nature, are not prejudiced.’

Professor Nielsen says that labour migration research will continue to drive her research career.

‘It’s something I’ll probably do forever! This current project applies everything I know about labour migration – both internationally and locally – and right now that’s very important to Australia and also to many other western democracies.’

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