Engaging business in refugee employment: the employers’ perspective

Employment Refugees Refugee settlement Labour force participation Australia

Humanitarian migrants in Australia are an extremely diverse cohort in terms of their countries of origin, levels of education, educational background and English skills (BNLA, 2017); factors which affect their employment prospects across the majority of industries. The opportunities for workforce integration of many humanitarian migrants may also be adversely affected by the lack of recognition of foreign credentials (BNLA, 2017) and lack of local work experience and references (Colic-Peisker & Walker, 2003).

Despite the human potential and ambitious aspirations of humanitarian migrants (Ilaj, 2014), they face higher levels of unemployment and lower levels of labour market participation than the average Australian (Settling Better, 2017). The aim of this report is to understand employers’ perceptions and experiences of hiring refugees, and how public policy could encourage or support employers to employ refugees successfully in greater numbers on a sustainable basis.

This study looks at the perceptions of employers that have and have not hired refugees. The aim is to gain insight into employers’ perceptions, misconceptions and experiences of the integration of refugees into the workforce by investigating:

  • motives for hiring refugees;
  • challenges and best practices for integrating refugees into the workforce;
  • desired support and incentives that could help employers hire refugees successfully; and
  • measures that government or non-governmental groups could take to increase sustainable refugee employment in Australia.

The study is based on the results of an online survey and in-depth interviews. 118 respondents participated in the online survey between February and April 2019. The insights of 15 companies (29 research participants in total) were collected through in-depth interviews between December 2018 and April 2019. Research participants were sought through multiple avenues, including publicly available databases and employer networks of service providers, local government and other intermediaries.

Key findings:

  • The perceived benefits of hiring refugees often outweighed the challenges for employers seeking to hire them. Employers indicated that hiring refugees gives them the ability to serve certain customer bases in their own language and with cultural sensitivity; they appreciated the work ethic of refugee employees and valued the experience and diversity in perspectives that refugees brought to the workplace. Many employers described refugees as eager to learn, hardworking and committed.
  • First experiences can be very powerful. Due to unfamiliarity with the refugee cohort and the visibility of ‘refugees’ as a social category of employees, some employer feedback suggests that the level of success of the first contact could be decisive in determining whether an employer would or would not continue hiring refugees.
  • ndustry-specific training (e.g. English language, technical skills) was flagged by employers as important. Generic training programs provided by the government were seen as insufficient to set up a refugee employee for success.
  • The perceptions of refugee workforce integration differed within organisations. Even within small employers, human resources (HR) staff and senior management were often disconnected from the reality of daily interactions and workplace integration challenges faced by refugees or possible hidden costs.
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