Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Communities: who is helping who?

Just been discussing communities with a colleague of refugee background. He has himself participated in a diasporic community and had been looking at an study by Jack Rothman  back in the 1960 (Which you can download here) which brings to light some of the challenges and dilemmas faced not only by refugees but by any migrant living in contact with those of similar background.

Our conversation took place before I had read the study. I put it to my colleague, based on my own experiences of contact with Chinese and Korean diaspora here in Melbourne, that communities develop power structures and that those power structures are often far less fair and democratic than those of the wider society in which they are located. My colleague wholeheartedly agreed, telling me something of his own experiences and research. Through our discussion, a number of insights emerged.

The problem faced by many young migrants, especially refugees, is that the problems of every day life, particularly the challenge of obtaining employment, are made all the more daunting by language difficulties and uncertainties regarding culture and communication styles. The communities that form among people sharing a common country of birth offer those recently arrived the opportunity to seek employment and other opportunities through word of mouth in their own language.

Jobs within the community can be obtained without the need to overcome any discrimination that may exist among employers outside the community. Also, competition is limited because the jobs are not advertised or are advertised in the community language. This is a problem because most of the jobs are obtained through referrals and favors. Members of the community who have employers as friends associates have a vested interest, not so much in helping newly arrived community members to obtain work, but more in helping the employers, who may be in a position to bestow favors on them in return.

How do referrals help employers more than those they employ? Well, apparently, all to often, the employment arrangements that they make are informal and operate outside the laws and systems of their adopted country. This means that pay is often below the minimum wage, important benefits such as superannuation, sick pay, penalty rates and minimum working conditions are omitted and employers can terminate employees on a whim. The businesses are able to become ever more profitable on the back of this cheap labor, while the employees struggle along, trying to convince themselves they were lucky to be given the job as a favor, or genuinely believing it is good in comparison to poor conditions in their country of origin. The exploitation that occurs can lead to people, especially young people, feeling hostile toward their community or to society in general, which is understandable. It is a credit to the determination and perseverance of young migrants that most are able to overcome this issue and go on to achieve their life goals.

The crucial thing that must be done in countries such as Australia, which depend on migrants, is to remove the barriers that hinder newly arrived people seeking work. We need to ensure that there is no discrimination and that everyone is given the help and training they need in order to understand the employment system and obtain work successfully. There are already some good services, but there need to be more and they need to be offered in a way that ensures universal participation. Education opportunities for refugees need a lot of work. Young people in Australia are currently allocated to a school year level based on their age after only two school terms of specialised English language tuition. Tuition hours provided with most visa classes are grossly insufficient and many miss out completely, often due to lack of knowledge of what is on offer. Creating a helpful and supportive society is everyone's responsibility. However, our government clearly need to play a bigger part and do a lot more to help and encourage us.

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