The inquiry into future employment services

On 22 January 2018, Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash, appointed an Expert Advisory Panel (‘the Panel’) to help shape the design of future employment services. The Department of Jobs and Small Business has since released a discussion paper and called for submissions from interested parties regarding the future employment services model. The submission period closed on 3 August 2018 and the Panel will report to Government in October 2018 outlining a proposal for reform.

Our submission

Employment has long been a focus of our work, including in our reports What Works (2010) and most recently in Not Working: The experiences of refugees and migrants with Jobactive (in collaboration with Fairfield Multicultural Interagency)

People who are forcibly displaced face many challenges that affect their ability to work. At a minimum, their careers are disrupted and they face the challenge of accessing an unfamiliar labour market in a foreign country. Many of them face other challenges, such as physical and mental health issues arising from their persecution. These compound other disadvantages faced by people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, such as the need to learn English, employment discrimination, lack of Australian work experience or networks, and difficulty in having overseas qualifications recognised.

Both of our reports emphasise the failure of mainstream employment services to provide effective assistance to refugees and migrants. We therefore strongly endorse the views expressed in the Discussion Paper about the inadequacies of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, and the need for greater flexibility and tailoring of employment services. We also welcome the Discussion Paper’s emphasis on the need to consider the needs of particular groups and references to the need for cultural sensitivity, although the Discussion Paper often fails to mention the particular needs of refugees and migrants in those contexts. We would strongly support the reintroduction of specialist services for refugees and migrants in the Commonwealth employment program.

We also welcome the recognition within the Discussion Paper of our concerns about an inflexible and counterproductive focus within Jobactive on compliance requirements, and the lack of capacity within Jobactive to provide adequate employment assistance given the caseloads involved.

This submission begins with the reason refugees are likely to need more intensive employment assistance and the assistance of specialist providers. We then address issues relating to the compliance requirements and the assessment process, and risks posed by the increased use of technology indicated in the Discussion Paper.

Our key concerns

Provision of enhanced or specialist network of job services

As we discuss in detail in our report Not Working, the current Jobactive model is designed for clients who have a good understanding of Australian employment systems and workplace culture and are fluent in English. The generalist Jobactive providers are not resourced to provide the kind of targeted individual support that would equip newly-arrived refugee and humanitarian entrants to access the Australian labour market.

In our Not Working report, we recommended that the Australian Government increase its investment in targeted employment programs. In our Appendix to that report, we highlighted examples of existing successful targeted employment programs, including by State governments and civil society. This built on our review of effective programs for refugees in What Works in 2010.

As discussed in both reports, the most effective services included a range of tailored supports that recognise the distinctive needs of refugees. For many refugees, critical elements will include assistance with familiarising themselves with Australian requirements for resumes and interviews, navigating training pathways and understanding Australian labour markets, and support within the workplace. We therefore welcome the recognition in the Discussion Paper of the need for a more flexible and holistic approach to job services, including support to help identify transferable skills, and training pathways.

An effective model is one that creates local work experience opportunities. An example of this is CareerSeekers, a not-for-profit that assists humanitarian entrants in Australia find professional work. It provides pre-employment support and training and connects jobseekers to paid internships lasting 12 weeks that provides them with local experience, a professional reference and a connection to a network in their industry of expertise. This provides an entry back to skilled employment for those with previous experience in a different country, and a more effective way of validating qualifications and testing their skills and experience in the Australian context.

Another key element is the need for employment caseworkers who can act as an intermediary and guide for both employers and jobseekers. Caseworkers are essential to help deal with misunderstandings or concerns for employers and employees in the initial stages. For example, AMES Australia’s market garden initiative employed a bicultural liaison worker, who could work through issues with Karen workers and the employers, such as work health and safety expectations in Australia.

While the Discussion Paper does recognise the need for a more tailored and holistic approach, it does not adequately recognise that there are existing programs and models, including programs funded by State governments and civil society, that reflect these principles. Many of these programs have been developed, at least in part, in response to the deficiencies of the Jobactive program. For many refugees and humanitarian entrants, these programs have been the reason people have found work, yet it has been the Jobactive provider which has been financially rewarded. Some have been developed through the use of philanthropic funding or on the initiative of small, locally-based programs.

Many of them would be even more effective if sustainably and reliably funded. In developing a new model of employment services, it would make more sense to fund existing programs that have proven effective. Rather than reinventing the wheel by creating new ‘spokes’, it would be more effective to build on such effective employment models by funding these programs.

The Discussion Paper asks whether this more flexible approach would be better implemented through an ‘enhanced’ generalist model or a ‘hub-and-spoke’ model, where the generalist hub refers out to specialist providers. We believe it would be much more effective if mainstream providers (or the ‘hub’) could refer such clients to specialist providers, rather than to expect a more ‘enhanced’ generalist service to cater to the needs of a relatively small and dispersed population with very specific needs. A generalist service is also likely to disadvantage providers in areas where there is a higher density of newly arrived and refugee jobseekers, and where ‘mainstream’ funding may not allow for more targeted and effective strategies to be pursued.

We note that there are already settlement service providers which have existing employment programs or strong relationships with employment providers, and that any new model should build on this existing foundation. Indeed, a more effective pathway is likely to be for settlement service providers to directly refer refugees to specialist programs themselves, as they will be best placed to understand the individual clients’ needs, goals and skills.

A key to the success of the new model would be to ensure that there are effective links and collaboration between settlement, education and training and employment programs. The development of such a strategy would need to take into consideration the views of settlement and other community service providers as well as refugee and migrant communities themselves. At a minimum, the criteria for specialist providers for refugees should include expertise in, or strong partnerships with, existing organisations with expertise in refugee settlement. They should be required to report on their engagement with other key stakeholders including refugee and migrant communities, on their use of translation and interpretation services, and on the cultural competency of their staff.

Refugees as a ‘highly disadvantaged group’

We strongly agree with the views in the Discussion Paper that more intensive support will need to be provided to highly disadvantaged jobseekers. However, there is a need to identify refugees and humanitarian entrants as in need of intensive and targeted support. The Discussion Paper does not adequately acknowledge the significant and longer term needs of refugees, apart from a brief reference in chapter 3 in relation to the ‘streamlining’ of support for refugees while refugees focus on settling and learning English

As noted above and discussed in detail in our reports, the disadvantages faced by refugees in the Australian labour market are long-standing, complex and multi-dimensional. Even those who are highly skilled find it difficult to enter the Australian workforce because of a lack of Australian work experience and the difficulty of having their qualifications recognised.These challenges require early and more intensive and tailored assistance to ensure they are not excluded from the workforce. We recommend therefore that the Department recognise in the new model that refugees are highly disadvantaged in the Australian workplace and would require specialist and targeted supports. Refugees are at high risk of persistent or entrenched disadvantage, as many have been deprived of education and employment, and face many challenges caused by forced displacement.

Concerns with the demerit compliance system

Our report Not Working details our concerns about the counterproductive effects of the compliance system within Jobactive, especially as it conflicts with settlement needs. Many of our members have reported to us their concerns about the compliance system, which is often not understood by refugees and enforced without sufficient consideration to individual circumstances by Jobactive providers. For many refugees and humanitarian entrants, Jobactive is experienced not as employment assistance but rather as an onerous and arbitrary burden with a fearsome threat of financial punishment. This is why the budget measure extending the exemption period from Jobactive for newly arrived refugees has been generally welcomed. If the Jobactive model is being rethought, it is essential that it include a serious reassessment of the balance between compliance and employment assistance, to ensure that the core purpose of the program is not undermined.

These concerns are only magnified by the introduction of new measures announced in the Budget which tighten compliance requirements, including for people battling drug or alcohol addiction. While the most recent changes to the compliance system aims to make it ‘fairer and simpler’ we express concern about the risks of shifting responsibility for the compliance to without adequate government oversight or the right to appeal until very late in the system. Too often, we have heard of cases where settlement service providers have had to assist people with Jobactive providers who have inappropriately enforced compliance, which puts people at risk of homelessness.

Improving the Jobseeker assessment

A key concern raised in our report was the failure of the current jobseeker assessment process to capture the disadvantages faced by refugees and migrants. RCOA’s consultations suggest that despite the complex needs of refugee jobseekers, many are classified into stream A or B, entitling them to basic support on the assumption that they are job ready. As a result, many people are unlikely to receive adequate support and instead become subject to income support exclusion periods. In many cases, refugee and migrant jobseekers who are illiterate or have very basic English, or have medical conditions have been left with minimal or no support.

We endorse the concern raised in the Discussion Paper that the interview process can be misleading, as we often hear that refugees ‘over-perform’ in these interviews and over-sell their capacities and skills. When this occurs, a jobseeker may be inaccurately streamed, meaning the Jobactive provider may not be aware of some of the limitations or issues affecting the jobseeker’s capacity to look for work and meet mutual obligation requirements.

However, the Discussion Paper wrongly suggests that this arises out of a lack of honesty and openness. Rather, the difficulty with the interview process for refugees is likely to be related to problems of trust, or misunderstanding about or unfamiliarity with the process and its implications. Refugees are often reluctant to fully disclose all relevant information for a range of reasons, such as the sensitivity of the information or different cultural norms.

Settlement service providers are well aware of the need for trauma-informed and culturally sensitive approaches to conversations, but this is not true of those conducting jobseeker assessments. A more appropriate method to ensure appropriate jobseeker assessment is to fund either settlement or community services providers with appropriate skills and relationships to do so, or to refer these to specialist services that are appropriately trained.

RCOA also endorses the inclusion of more information beyond the JSCI in the streaming process. An example of such an approach is being tested currently in Fairfield in NSW, a region with a high number of refugees. Jobactive providers have partnered to develop a referral template and protocol between STARTTS, a specialist torture and trauma counselling service, and Workskill to help overcome problems related to non-disclosure so they can receive appropriate assistance and are restreamed if necessary. RCOA is also aware of a pilot program to upload health information obtained by the NSW Refugee Health Service to better inform the jobseeker assessment process.

As well as improving the sources of information relevant to the jobseeker assessment, we also support the suggestion of allowing for ongoing reassessment as circumstances change. This is especially relevant to refugee jobseekers, as there are likely to be many changes to their circumstances in the first years of settlement.

Increased need for resources to use technology as for effective service

“The system assumes that clients have knowledge [of] technology and they can read English and can get information for themselves, rather than being there to help them to navigate the system.” – A Swahili-speaking refugee from Fairfield LGA

Jobactive in its current state requires people to report, view appointments and apply for jobs online. Feedback from our consultations indicate that providers seem unaware of the lack of experience many refugees and humanitarian entrants may have with this technology and leave people to navigate this technology themselves, with devastating consequences. Some refugees or humanitarian entrants, for instance, have been living in refugee camps for many years and have never had access to this kind of technology, let alone to search for jobs. Under the current Jobactive system, providers often miscategorise the support needs of refugee jobseekers, with little opportunity for reassessment. Further, even for those familiar, such services tend to be provided only in English, without appropriate translation or interpretation services.

RCOA strongly supports the increased digital literacy training suggested in the Discussion Paper, and emphasises the close correlation between digital illiteracy and other complex challenges facing many refugees. Many refugees heavily rely on family members, friends or settlement service providers to access technology for service access. Often, government departments believe they are ‘using’ the online services, but it is their friends or service providers helping them through it. An empowering approach would be to fund digital literacy programs but also to fund settlement services to enable them to do this work in a way that could help teach them how to do it in future.

We would strongly urge that with the greater shift to technology proposed in the Discussion Paper, attention is not diverted from the need to provide more intensive face-to-face options to those for whom online services are not suitable. There is also an urgent need for an appropriate sample of jobseekers to be used to trial any new system, to ensure that it is capable of delivering suitable support to refugees. It is important that any online portal should be culturally sensitive. Importantly, The information should include some introductory and capacity-building content (eg on interviews, resumes, etc) which is culturally specific. Further, an online portal should include not only translations and audio or visual content, but also pathways that are easy to use. The Department should consult closely with those who routinely help people navigate these systems.

Our recommendations

Recommendation 1

The new model of employment services should be based on a model that incorporates specialist providers for refugees and humanitarian entrants and include a wider range of more flexible or tailored supports. The model should focus on building on existing programs and initiatives that work well for this group, by providing sustainable, reliable and flexible funding. Specialist providers should be required to demonstrate a strong partnership with relevant service providers and refugee communities. Contracts should include criteria for ensuring such specialist services are appropriately trained, supported and qualified to deliver such services.

Recommendation 2

Refugees and humanitarian entrants should be identified as a highly disadvantaged group who require intensive and targeted support under the new model of employment services.

Recommendation 3

The Department should commission an independent and robust review of the compliance aspect of the Jobactive program and its relationship to the core purpose of the Jobactive program remains employment assistance.

Recommendation 4

The new model should include a broader range of information in assessing a person’s need for employment support and their strengths and goals, and ensure that those who conduct the assessments are appropriately skilled and trained to identify these.

Recommendation 5

The new employment services model must include sufficient resources for more intensive, face-to-face support for those who need it, including refugees and humanitarian entrants. Any new online portal must be designed in a culturally sensitive way, and involve consultation with service providers who help navigate these systems. There should also be funding for digital literacy training and for service providers to help people navigate online systems.

Read the full submission