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A Path to Social Inclusion in a Multicultural Australia

Published 02 Jul 2017
Vivian Rivera


With substantial population flows across and between national boundaries and societies, the issue of social inclusion is growing in complexity. Migration trends have posed challenges to states worldwide. States must deal with multidimensional transformations that not only involve demographic change but also change in economic and social structures, identities, behaviours, priorities and lifestyles.[1] As a result, there is an overriding need for states (especially immigrant-receiving countries) to ensure that their policies, practices and institutions, work harmoniously to guarantee equal rights, non-discrimination, participation in economic and political life, and social inclusion.[2]

While Australia has a longstanding (albeit contentious) history of dealing with the challenges of cultural diversity through an inclusive social policy framework, there is scope for better outcomes for groups, such as migrant and refugees[3]. There are some key actions, which could be taken to further their social inclusion; that is their access to appropriate education, health, housing, public services, and participation in community decision-making[4] and, ultimately, their ability to contribute to economic growth.[5]

Community Capacity Building (CCB) provides a useful framework in which to consider this issue and identify such actions. CCB has a number of important features. First, it fosters recognition of the strengths and abilities of a community to face opportunities and challenges, and to engage actively and collaboratively in social life. Second, CCB enables community members to mobilise their locally available assets and achieve positive social change. Third, CCB promotes greater self-determination, stimulating economic growth and expanding employment opportunities.

One important aspect of CCB is its economic focus. Indeed, workforce participation is the primary means by which individuals and communities can avoid social exclusion.[6] Unfortunately, both migrants and refugees remain under-represented in the Australian labour force. These groups face serious challenges in finding gainful employment.[7] This includes lack of local work experience; limited opportunities to create local networks; lack of understanding of the local workplace culture; minimal access to vocational training; and limited English language skills.[8]

A number of organisations in Australia are seeking to address this. The African Australian Inclusion Program (AAIP), for example, aims to create pathways to enhance African immigrants’ employability skills and preparedness for Australian workplaces.[9] Drawing on AAIP’s successful initiatives, this article discusses CCB key areas that have the potential to increase social and economic participation by migrant and refugee communities, and contribute to the construction of a more inclusive society. These include: the promotion of work placement programs, comprehensive networking frameworks, cultural training modules for newly arrived job seekers and local industries, and integrated vocational training. These signposts are some of the ways in which active participation by immigrants in the social, political and economic life of host countries can be fostered.

  1. Promote work placement programs

For many migrants and refugees, particularly those who are newly arrived, the lack of Australian employment experience is a barrier to accessing job opportunities.[10] For employers, there are concerns with recently arrived refugee and immigrant candidates’ local work experience. This seems to play a more decisive role in the selection process than their higher educational achievements and formal credentials. Since newcomers’ mentoring and training in the workplace demand the mobilisation of financial and human resources, most local enterprises are naturally reluctant to take on migrants and refugees with no local job experience, in some cases purely for productivity and cost-benefit reasons.[11]

Initiatives that remove barriers preventing migrant and refugee communities from becoming financially independent and productive participants in Australia’s socio-cultural, political and economic life are necessary. The AAIP, for instance, provides direct support to African-Australians through flexible and intermediate labour market options; programs that offer paid employment for a temporary period in which participants can receive work-related training, personal development assistance and coaching to engage in the local labour market. The AAIP works collaboratively with the social and business sectors to overcome barriers to employment and create further opportunities for immigrants and refugees to develop their professional skills and careers.[12]

The implementation of comprehensive programs like AAIP with a long-term vision towards building community capacity is critical to achieve greater social inclusion. The promotion of employment opportunities for immigrant communities, especially those who are newly arrived, helps prevent the early onset of social tensions caused by financial uncertainty and economic dependence. It is therefore vital to encourage employers and enterprises to provide financial and instrumental support to programs that set out mechanisms for effective entry pathways and participation in the workforce, and give both migrant and refugee groups the possibility to access learning and experiences to build their job readiness.

  1. Comprehensive networking framework

Another factor that imposes a barrier to the full participation of newly arrived migrants and refugees in Australia’s labour market is their lack of meaningful networks.[13] Building networks is one of the most effective pathways to accessing and securing a first job in Australia. Social networks have a collective value associated with community co-operation, interconnectedness and mutual benefits and represent a way to gain access to resources such as financial assistance, housing, education and employment. Building social networks involves a reciprocal endeavour where more established communities, organisations, enterprises and governments promote opportunities for newcomers to interact and expand ties within broader society.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommends the creation and maintenance of strong social networks as a key strategy for social inclusion.[14] Among others, the initial benefits of social networks range from labour market activation, creation of small and medium sized enterprises, access to financial capital, facilitation of labour supply, and increased economic growth.[15] Consequently, networks can bring about significant social and economic gains for both newly arrived immigrants and refugees as well as for long-established residents in the host society.

Networking is a key aspect of CCB. For immigrants and refugees, establishing new ties and linkages within the host society helps them increase their confidence in their interpersonal, political, and even leadership skills.[16] Networking helps them to create a sense of co-operation and to envisage themselves as drivers of positive change. Some migrant organisations in countries like Norway and Scotland have done a remarkable job in helping new arrivals access basic resources, connect them with social and financial institutions, and build both formal and informal networks.[17] Additionally, one of the elements of the AAIP’s success is its commitment to engaging participants right from the start of the program in social networks and community relationships. The program facilitates the involvement of the participants in social events organised by the company and stakeholders, alongside tailored networking programs designed to help them build networking skills and meet potential employers from a range of different industries.[18]

These initiatives should serve as a model for other formal migrant organisations to emulate. It is also important that these organisations enhance their support programs by allocating case managers and mentors that come from the relevant immigrant community. Mentors from the same or a similar background can liaise between the newly arrived immigrant population and their surrounding communities, as well as bridge cultural and linguistic gaps. Both case managers and mentors can act as facilitators to connect job seekers with employers and refer them to relevant service providers.[19]

It is clear that gaining employment is a cornerstone of successful social inclusion. For newly arrived immigrants including those from refugee background, it allows them to become productive members of society and gain financial independence from the start. This is underpinned by setting out a comprehensive networking framework to support immigrants’ job search journey and maximise their opportunities for accessing the local job market. It also requires the promotion of formal and informal networking schemes such as: formal contact with employment agencies, career coaches, vocational training advisors, and informal networking through open days, sports events, and career fairs. This type of intervention demands the commitment of governments, enterprises, and local businesses to promote networking events and support more formal employment services.

  1. Training modules to bridge cultural barriers in the workforce

A challenge for newly arrived immigrants trying to secure effective entry into the Australian labour market is the limited exposure to the local workplace culture. Immigrants trying to find their first job in Australia encounter two important barriers. The first is the lack of a realistic understanding of the local workplaces and the likelihood of being confronted with different employment practices and operations, compared to work practices in their countries of origin. The second is existing misconceptions that may create distrust towards newly arrived job seekers based on their ethnic or cultural background.[20]

Overcoming structural and symbolic barriers that prevent newly arrived immigrants from engaging in the local labour force is vital to maximise their potential to contribute to and benefit from the social and economic capital of the host society. A more comprehensive approach to break down those barriers needs to place strong emphasis on developing trust, connectedness, and cooperation through positive socialisation. The promotion of such values complements the process of CCB within workplaces. It fosters the understanding of the assets that immigrant communities bring to the workplace, such as culture, language, knowledge, and leadership. On the other hand, it allows newcomers to have a better understanding of the existing instrumental and human capital available in the host society. Gaining a more realistic understanding of the new workplace culture enables them to engage more effectively in conciliation, planning, and decision making to achieve reciprocal goals.

The AAIP has put in place sound strategies to break down symbolic barriers, which are particularly concerned with cultural sensitivities. The program has put forward efforts to develop a genuine understanding of the workplace culture in Australia, whilst simultaneously fostering an interest in, and understanding of, participants’ culture within the workplace.

Strategies to support CCB in the workplace must ensure that immigrant and local groups engage in a fuller and more harmonious way. Interventions need to emphasise the recognition of common assets, qualities, and needs among newly arrived job seekers and the mainstream working population. The implementation of cross-cultural modules to bridge cultural barriers in the workplace is a valuable starting point to foster such dynamics in a culturally diverse work environment. It allows newcomers to gain a better understanding of the local workplace culture and mainstream employment practices, while providing local employers and employees with a more nuanced understanding of newly arrived job seekers’ cultural traits, and the barriers they face in finding gainful employment in the host country.

  1. Integrated vocational training

Studies have shown that most refugees and immigrants who arrive in Australia strive to become productive and economically independent as early as possible.[21] However, for many of them, the lack of local work experience and limited English skills are considerable obstacles to finding employment. The recognition of these barriers has caused newly arrived immigrants to pursue further vocational training in Australia as an alternative pathway to gaining access to the job market.[22]

Vocational training in the intended area of work is important to prepare newly arrived immigrants for employment in Australia. It is particularly empowering when combined with civic education, as well as literacy and communication skills training. To achieve this, more formal immigration programs for adults should be in place, and at low or no cost. These programmes should combine language instruction, cross-cultural training, guidance for social and economic integration and job preparedness. As language deficiencies are a considerable barrier to enter the labour market, it is extremely important that there are vocational programs tailored for newly arrived immigrants, which include bilingual support and involve community liaison officers who can bridge cultural and linguistic gaps.

The professional-training program, pioneered by the AAIP, has strategically promoted opportunities for participants’ capacity building by enhancing their employability and career prospects.[23] The program provides participants with job-related training modules in the workplace and has delivered tailored English language instruction to develop the language skills and proficiency required in a professional environment.[24] This program could be used as a model for a wider rollout across Australia.

Those newly arrived who are ready for work need vocational programs that facilitate understanding of the mainstream labour market practices, foster self-reliance in their own skills and abilities to achieve broader career goals, and prepare them to respond positively and effectively to job opportunities.


CCB, as a mechanism for social inclusion, is a way of supporting and working cooperatively with newly arrived immigrants and refugees to overcome the barriers to social and economic participation in the host country. CCB interventions aim to maximise newcomers’ personal and professional skills, knowledge, and experiences in order to enable them to create (and sustain) positive changes in their personal lives, and as members of society.

Building a more inclusive society requires tailored measures that close the gaps that prevent immigrants from accessing opportunities and the resources required for a decent life such as: education, housing, social services, political and civic participation and employment.

Gaining fair and equal access to the local job market is a condition for the successful settlement and integration of newly arrived immigrants and their families into the broader community. Immigrants and refugees with jobs are not only financially independent, but also better placed to establish social bonds, connect with members of the broader community, access opportunities to learn the host country’s language to a high level, and feel they can collaborate to achieve a stronger collective impact in the host society.


[1] Islam, Kamrul & Stephen Castles (2013) “The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World” in Canadian Studies in Population, vol. 40, no. 1-2, pp. 105-106.

[2] Valtonen, Kathleen (2009) Social Work and Migration Immigrant and Refugee Settlement and Integration. Ashgate: Farnham, England; Burlington, VT, pp. 68-70.

[3] UNHCR (2016) UNHCR viewpoint: ‘Refugee’ or ‘migrant’ – Which is right?, visited May 2017.

[4] Scottish Community Development Centre for Learning Connections (2007) Building Community Capacity Resources for Community Learning & Development Practice, Scottish Government,, visited May 2016.

[5] Buckmaster, Luke & Matthew Thomas (2009) “Social Inclusion and Social Citizenship – Towards a truly inclusive society”, Research paper no 08 2009-10. Australia: Department of Parliamentary Services. Parliament Library,, visited April 2016.

[6] AMES Victoria (2011) Inquiry into Multiculturalism in Australia, Submission to Joint Standing Committee Inquiry into Multiculturalism,, visited May 2016.

[7] AMES (2011) Words to Work: Settling in and Finding Work, The experiences of migrant people in the Adult Migrant English Program in Melbourne. Adult Multicultural Education Service, Research & Policy Unit: Melbourne.

[8] Froy, Francesca & Lucy Pyne (2011) Ensuring Labour Market Success for Ethnic Minority and Immigrant Youth. Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis: St. Louis.

[9] Jesuit Social Services (2016) African-Australian Inclusion Program,, visited June 2017.

[10] Koutsogeorgopoulou, Vassiliki (2011) “Enhancing Labour Utilisation in a Socially Inclusive Society in Australia”, OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 852. OECD Publishing: Paris.

[11] AMES Victoria (2011) Inquiry into Multiculturalism in Australia, Submission to Joint Standing Committee Inquiry into Multiculturalism,, visited May 2016.

[12] Jesuit Social Services (2016) African-Australian Inclusion Program,, visited June 2017.

[13] OECD (2012) Activating jobseekers: how Australia does it. OECD Publishing, Paris.

[14] OECD (2007) Gaining from Migration Towards a New Mobility System. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: Paris.

[15] OECD (2007) Gaining from Migration Towards a New Mobility System. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: Paris.

[16] Abu-Laban, Yasmeen, Christina Gabriel & Simone Browne (2004) “Selling diversity: Immigration, Multiculturalism, Employment Equity and Globalization” in Resources for Feminist Research, vol. 31, no. 1/2, pp. 35-36.

[17] OECD (2007) Gaining from Migration Towards a New Mobility System. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: Paris.

[18] Jesuit Social Services (2013) African Inclusion Program,, visited April 2016.

[19] OECD (2012) Activating jobseekers: how Australia does it. OECD Publishing: Paris.

[20] AMES (2011) Inquiry into Multiculturalism in Australia, Submission to Joint Standing Committee Inquiry into Multiculturalism,, visited May 2016.

[21] AMES (2011) Words to Work: Settling in and Finding Work, The experiences of migrant people in the Adult Migrant English Program in Melbourne. Adult Multicultural Education Service, Research & Policy Unit: Melbourne.

[22] AMES Victoria (2011) Inquiry into Multiculturalism in Australia, Submission to Joint Standing Committee Inquiry into Multiculturalism,, visited May 2016.

[23] Jesuit Social Services (2012) Inquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration: Contribution of Migration to Australian Society., visited May 2016.

[24] Jesuit Social Services (2013) African Inclusion Program,, visited May 2016.