While containment measures remain our best strategy to manage the spread of COVID-19 as vaccination rates rise, the psychological distress and the resulting economic damage cannot be ignored.
For refugees and asylum seekers, the impact is disproportionate felt, and deep challenges.
Read more: The obstacles faced by skilled migrants in finding full capacity employment and the economic cost
Mahmoud’s (not his real name) experience reflects the challenges refugees have faced in Melbourne’s labor market over the past 18 months. Mahmoud is a refugee from the Middle East who arrived in Australia two years ago for safety and a better life.
He lives in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, which continues to experience the worse impacts the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19. It is a predominantly working-class region, with a considerable refugee population. These residents often work in industries such as warehousing, construction, healthcare, and delivery services that cannot be completed by working from home, leaving them vulnerable to infections and job loss. .
Although Mahmoud is highly qualified, with a masters degree and engineering experience, he has not been able to find work as an engineer in Australia as he lacks local work experience and his engineering qualifications are not recognized in Australia.
However, after contacting a migrant support center, a social worker put him in touch with an organization that helps refugees and asylum seekers find work.
This organization found an infrastructure and engineering company that agreed to hire Mahmoud as an intern. Unfortunately, in April 2020, as Melbourne faced its first wave of COVID-19 (March-June), the employer withdrew the opportunity. The company was laying off more staff. Mahmoud faced a spell of unemployment, but found casual work in a warehouse, below his skill level.
Mahmoud’s experience is reflected by employers of refugees and those working for organizations helping refugees and asylum seekers find work in Australia. For example, a manager who works in construction explained in mid-2020:
“We have no plans for any additional recruitment during the period of this current COVID outbreak […] I know that overall there has certainly been a decline in the number of job postings posted on the market. I think the refugees will potentially be lost in this; there are a lot of people out of work right now.
“It is not risky to employ refugees” pic.twitter.com/fU4JNaF2AC
– Australian Refugee Council (@OzRefugeeCounc) July 7, 2021
These findings come from a study based on 35 interviews with senior executives from organizations that employ and assist refugees and asylum seekers in mid-late 2020, as Victoria battles her second wave of COVID-19 (July -November).
Our interviews indicate that the job market has become more difficult for refugees and asylum seekers in the COVID-19 era than it has been for other members of the Australian community. There are several reasons for this.
Decline in available jobs
COVID-19 closures have affected industries such as retail, food, hospitality and tourism, where many refugees and asylum seekers are working. Our research indicates that these people are often hired as job buffers, meaning they are employed when a country’s economy is booming, but laid off when jobs are scarce.
In addition, they are more likely to work in casual jobs without job security, making it easy for employers to terminate their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
More competition in the labor market
The decline in available jobs increases competition in the labor market. Thus, refugees and asylum seekers often lose out due to less work experience in Australia, weaker employment networks and unrecognized qualifications.
Lack of government support
The Australian government is spending billions of dollars to prevent the collapse of the Australian labor market and to help workers who are struggling financially. Refugees with permanent visas can access JobSeeker payments which can reduce their financial hardship. However, asylum seekers living in the community on temporary protection visas or transitional visas are not eligible for JobSeeker.
Now, without access to JobKeeper, employers are also less likely to retain temporary visa holders.
Discrimination and the “Australian first” mentality
Our results indicate that an “Australian first” mentality has developed. An interview participant who helps refugees and asylum seekers find work argued that this population suffered from prejudice during COVID-19:
“I think it has put refugees at a greater disadvantage, because there have been a lot of job cuts, and people have this ‘Take care of Australians first’.”
A new way forward
In response to the challenges refugees face in finding employment, our research suggests some strategies to improve the employment prospects of refugees and asylum seekers:
- Pathways to permanent residence and citizenship for asylum seekers
- Access to health care and financial safety net
- Online training and education
- Social shopping.
In our interviews, the policy response most frequently mentioned by managers was social procurement, which would see employment opportunities for disadvantaged groups specifically set aside in governments or other organizations.
For example, the Victorian Level Crossing Removal Agency offers work experience opportunities in the infrastructure sector and upgrading to refugees who have previous engineering skills and experience in their home country within the EPIC program. Such strategies can be replicated by other organizations with sufficient investment.
Read more: Tracing the impacts of the COVID pandemic on Australia’s fastest growing group of migrants
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated Australia’s dependence on essential workers in sectors such as healthcare, elderly care, warehousing and food services, many of whom are refugees and asylum seekers. It is our responsibility to repay the gratitude in helping refugees and asylum-seekers find sustainable employment, and to help them build better lives.
This article was co-authored with Victor Sojo, Senior Lecturer in Leadership at the University of Melbourne.