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Speech deliverd by Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, on the launch of the report, Not working: The experience of refugee and migrants with Jobactive, in Cabramatta on 24 August 2017.

I begin by acknowledging that we are on the land of Cabrogal people of the Darug nation and pay my respects to indigenous elders past, present and emerging. I would like to express my thanks to Fairfield Multicultural Interagency for the invitation to speak today.

This report is the result of cooperation between Fairfield Multicultural Interagency, which provided a local context with its survey of refugee and migrant job seekers, and the Refugee Council of Australia which incorporated feedback gathered from refugee community members around Australia.

The genesis for this report was in 2015 when it became clear, with the additional allocation of 12,000 places for refugees from Syria and Iraq, that many new arrivals would be coming to Western Sydney and particularly to Fairfield City because of family links. Both the interagency and we in the Refugee Council knew that the impacts of the additional program would be significantly judged on how quickly new arrivals could find work. We agreed that we should do everything we could to monitor how refugee job seekers fared and put forward constructive alternatives to issues we were able to identify.

While this report specifically focuses on refugees and vulnerable migrants in the City of Fairfield, it would be wrong to conclude that the issues in this report are just local ones. That’s not the case at all. The Refugee Council of Australia conducts consultations each year with refugee community members and settlement service providers about Australia’s refugee program and the experiences of newly arrived refugees. In the past two years, we have heard the same concerns reflected in this report in consultations in various parts of Sydney, Brisbane, Armidale, Newcastle, Wollongong, Orange, Canberra, Melbourne, Geelong, Launceston, Hobart, Adelaide, Mt Barker, Perth and Darwin.

It would also be wrong to conclude that these issues are new. I was appointed to my role with the Refugee Council of Australia in mid 2006 and later that year was involved in community consultations in various states in preparation for our submission to the Australian Government on its 2007 refugee program. In that submission we reported the following:

“One of the issues raised in almost every consultation around the country was the inability of Job Network providers to address the specific needs of refugees. … The approaches of many providers seem to be incompatible with the requirements of high-needs clients. Cases have already arisen where Job Network providers have put employment above learning English and refugees have had to drop out of English classes in order to take on manual jobs which do not require English skills.”

There is more about this issue in that 2007 submission, along with a recommendation that the Job Network program, as it was then called, be reviewed in the light of refugees’ concerns. The same issues came up in our annual consultations and submission in 2008, 2009 and each year since. In 2010, we published a major research report on employment issues for refugees, promoted by these concerns. In 2012, we published a discussion paper on issues with what was then called Job Services Australia. We canvassed these issues again in 2014 when we put a submission to the Department of Employment as it prepared for what became Jobactive. Another discussion paper was produced in 2016 on issues with the Jobactive program.

We in the Refugee Council have raised these issues with ministers and senior bureaucrats in the governments of John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and now Malcolm Turnbull. Most often, we have been ignored. At other times, we had very negative responses from politicians and bureaucrats who didn’t like the message they were hearing. Occasionally, we have had ministers and senior bureaucrats listen for a period of time. In 2013 and 2014, senior bureaucrats of the Department of Employment conducted consultations with refugee and migrant job seekers as they reviewed what was then Job Services Australia – and they reported hearing exactly what we had been hearing for years from our community consultations. I believed that change was on the horizon. And yet, when the new Jobactive tender was introduced, there was little or nothing done to address the issues which had been communicated directly to the government.

The bottom line is that we still have a program which fails many refugee and migrant job seekers. When you hear the same message from communities around Australia, it is clear that the underlying problem is not with each of the local Jobactive providers but with the government’s national Jobactive model. Too many job seekers with no Australian work experience get streamed into the category where they get minimal support. The government’s Jobactive program often works against its Adult Migrant English Program, as we hear all too often of recent arrivals with poor English being pressured to leave English classes to meet job search requirements. The expectations placed on Jobactive providers and the ways in which outcomes are funded increase the likelihood of some refugee job seekers being forced into inappropriate courses, others into inappropriate jobs which result in them losing the skills which make them more employable and others deprioritised because there are not sufficient resources available to give the assistance which is really needed.

At times, we have had Federal Government ministers blame refugees for not finding work, ignoring the failings of their own Jobactive program on which they are spending $1.43 billion this financial year. We have had a previous assistant minister blaming settlement services for poor employment outcomes for refugees, ignoring the fact that these services were not the ones funded by government to work on employment strategies.

It is clear that the message from refugee and migrant job seekers in this report is an unpopular one with many government decision-makers. It is tempting to soften the message, to tone it down so that it doesn’t cause ripples. But such an approach doesn’t serve the interests of the job seekers who are desperate to find sustainable work in Australia and nor does it keep faith with those who have taken the time and trouble to raise their concerns with us. I encourage each of you to read the report carefully, to understand the concerns outlined by the job seekers who participated in the Fairfield Multicultural Interagency survey.

As you read the report, you will see that it not only clearly outlines shortcomings with current employment support programs but details a series of recommendations for change. We are recommending a national strategy to address the specific employment barriers faced by refugees and migrants. We believe it is time for an independent review of the Jobactive program, to address the concerns raised in this and previous reports and improve the effectiveness of the government’s very significant investment in the program. The report outlines a series of successful employment transition programs, funded by the State Government, philanthropic bodies and NGOs, which we believe can be better supported to complement the work of an improved Jobactive program. And we also recommend that the Government invest in research and online platforms to share knowledge about programs which are effective in helping refugees and migrants find sustainable employment.

I would like to commend Fairfield Multicultural Interagency, particularly Morlai Kamara, Carmen Lazar, Mersaline Monteiro, Zana Brasnovic, Simon Sogora and Ivan Amaro, for their leadership in this research. I thank Fairfield City Council for their financial support of this project and I commend my Refugee Council colleague Shukufa Tahiri for her work in drawing together the local experiences from Fairfield with national feedback from refugee communities in other cities and states.

And I would particularly like to thank all those present who participated in the survey which forms the basis of this report. We in the Refugee Council of Australia and Fairfield Multicultural Interagency are committed to following through on the concerns you have raised.

All newcomers to Australia, whether they have left their home because of persecution or whether they have migrated voluntarily, arrive with high hopes for their future in this country. All of us here today want to see these hopes achieved, not dashed. This report is an important contribution in canvassing how we collectively can do better with the resources allocated to employment services. I encourage you to read it, promote it and do everything you can to support the agenda for change contained in this report.