Ensuring solid ground for Australia’s care workforce

Australian industries rely very heavily on migrant workers, and the Australian health and community support sectors are no exception. Anybody who has walked into a health service, an aged care facility, or a child-care centre lately will see that migrant and refugee women are providing much of the important care that families, older people, and children in our community need.

The data shows us that 36% of all female staff in community and services industries are born overseas, with the majority born in a main non-English speaking country.  Similarly, 40% of registered nurses and carers who are working in aged care or disability care are born overseas.  Without migrant and refugee women, these sectors wouldn’t have the labour and workforce that they need.

We are very grateful for the labour of migrant and refugee women in the health and community care sectors; we can clearly see what an amazing and important job they are doing. But are they working on solid ground? Are their jobs secure, can they rely on their industries to recognise and value their labour, and the skills and qualifications they bring? Can they expect gender and racial equity at work?

To answer these questions, let’s look at the systems that support this labour force: migration, employment and overseas qualification recognition. For migrant workers, these systems generate precarity and uncertainty instead of the security and equity we need. For example, even though the health and community care sectors are growing and will need a permanent workforce, the migration system has created a temporary one – currently numbering 2.1 million people on temporary visas, many of whom are working in the health and community care sectors. They have settled here, had children in Australia and have become an integral part of our community.

When it comes to recognition of skills and qualifications, we know from research conducted in Queensland that 49% of skilled migrants are not fully utilising the skills or qualifications that they have in their jobs. There are three key reasons for this. First, overseas qualifications may not be recognised in Australia and the process for having them accepted is onerous, lengthy, and costly. For women, who are often juggling the gendered double load of parenting and housework the process is even more prohibitive. Second, overseas work experience isn't necessarily valued or recognised here. And third, migrant and refugee women are often overlooked for employment and advancement due to the endemic race and gender discrimination in the Australian labour force.

Ultimately, it’s a lose-lose scenario: we have a highly qualified, skilled, and experienced workforce that is not sufficiently recognised or valued. This workforce is living on precarious visas, working in sectors that are highly important but under-recognised and under-valued, and in jobs that are not making best use of their skills and qualifications. In the inverse, economic forecasts have shown that if the skills of migrants were better valued and utilised, the economy would be at least $250 million dollars better off over the next 10 years.

So, where to from here? How do we shift from shaky ground to solid ground? We need to highlight and address the marginalisation of migrant and refugee women in our workforce. We need to enable the transition of overseas qualified migrant and refugee women into positions that they're qualified for. We need to develop strategies to eliminate gender and race discrimination in the workforce, so that migrant and refugee women have equitable access to work and promotions within the health care sector, in a way that recognises their skills, qualifications and work experience.

Finally, we should pay close attention to the positive impact a bilingual, bicultural workforce can make to the health system in this multicultural country. Appropriately trained and accredited health educators are already playing a central role in educating and connecting communities to the health information and services they need, as we have seen from the Health in my Language program, along with many others. We have an opportunity to recognise, value, appropriately remunerate, professionalise and support this workforce, which is largely made up of migrant and refugee women.

First published in edition #121 of The WRAP on 27 June 2023.