The right whites can make or break job openings for African migrants

Dr Melanie Baak, Lecturer at University of South Australia

Racial hierarchies are hindering African-born migrants from securing meaningful employment in South Australia, according to new research by the University of South Australia.

The research was conducted in partnership with the University of Technology Sydney, researchers found that knowing the ‘right’ (white) people was vital to securing a job; without this, African migrants often found themselves locked out of the employment market.

Why do African migrants struggle to find work?

African migrants represent a small growing population, with 388,179 recoded in the latest Census (about 1.7% of the total population). In South Australia, there are 20,238, 33% of whom were born in South Africa and the remainder coming from 45 different countries.

Lead researcher UniSA’s Dr Melanie Baak says that this research provides important insights into the racial struggles suffered by African-born migrants in finding employment.

“A big reason African-born migrants struggle secure a meaningful job is that they lack the ‘right sort’ of social ties to even get a foot in the door,” Dr Baak says.

“Most of the people in this study have been in Australia for more than 10 years, speak English and have attained Australian qualifications. But despite their obvious skills and desire for employment, it’s very much ‘who you know, not what you know’.”

“Getting a meaningful job is dependent on having a ‘vertical bridging tie’, someone who has the connections to the job and who can help them past employment gatekeepers.”

“These people signal a proximity to whiteness and as such act as a sort of guarantor to show that the job seeker has the right kind of social-cultural skills to fit into the work environment.”

“Without such connections, a migrant employment seeker is often stuck and obliged to take whatever mediocre job is available. These jobs frequently don’t reflect their level of qualifications and can trap them within the cycle of low-paid, low-quality work.”

How can Australia fix this systemic racial bias?

Working alongside members of the African Communities Council of South Australia, Australian Migrant Resource Centre, and the African Students Council of South Australia, the mixed-methods study collected data from five focus groups and an online survey.

The top five factors for securing meaningful jobs were: a knowledge of Australian culture; the strength of social networks; race; employers’ perceptions of Africans; and country of birth. Dr Baak says it’s disturbing that such blatant discrimination and racism exists in society.

“Systemic discrimination has no place in Australia, yet time and time again we find non-Anglo populations/African migrants facing racially-driven bias in this country,” Dr Baak says.

“If migrant-receiving countries like Australia want to address the migrant employment gap, much more needs to be done not only to help new migrants build social networks, but also to incorporate anti-racism work as an integral strategy for migrant labour market integration.”

“Everyone deserves to be treated fairly and with respect, and in Australia where we pride ourselves on being multi-cultural, we all need to step up and practice what we preach.”