Some things are just invisible to most people, no matter how often they see them. Take immigrant and refugee women in the workforce for example. People see immigrant and refugee women every day, working in hospitals, hotels, child care centres, take away food shops and nail salons, without really thinking about the contribution they are making to the Australian economy. When parents pack their children’s lunches with sliced cheese or packaged fruit or yoghurt they are often looking directly at the results of immigrant labour, without necessarily registering the ‘who’ and ‘how’ connections. And when office or retail workers turn up to work and the office or shop has been cleaned overnight, it’s not usual to contemplate who it was that did the cleaning.
Despite their invisibility, immigrant and refugee women play an indispensable role in the Australian labour force, providing an active and flexible workforce for our manufacturing, aged care, child care, hospitality and cleaning industries. But their place in the workforce often comes at a high personal cost and much sacrifice. For many immigrant and refugee women, labour market ‘success’ equates to working in jobs for which they are over qualified. The jobs are more likely to be under-paid, low-skilled and performed under casual and contract conditions with little chance of career development. And while Australia’s skilled migration program has continued to grow during the last decade, the number of migrant women in highly-skilled positions represents only a minority. Job status aside, women on temporary subclass 457 visas are also more susceptible to exploitation.
It’s now an obvious, if not well-known, fact that immigrant and refugee women continue to be over-represented in the numbers of unemployed. According to the OECD, the rate of unemployment is highest amongst overseas born women (5.1%) compared to overseas-born men (4.1%), Australian-born men (3.4%) and Australian-born women (4.2%). If job success in a new country depends on such things as English proficiency; age; education; and previous work experience, then many immigrant and refugee women also have the additional requirement of balancing these with caring for the family and home. Surely more than a triple burden. It’s also not a far stretch to presume (only because combined gender and migrant specific data is difficult to come by), that the underemployment rate (8.2% for all women compared to 4.9% for men) is much higher for immigrant and refugee women.
The problem goes back to invisibility and lack of recognition. Policy makers need to look behind the unemployment rates and recognise the differences in the migration experiences of different categories of women. Amongst the diversity, they might just find that job security, workplace protection and opportunity are the keys to equity in employment.