‘What my 5 jobs in 5 years says about discrimination in Australia’
Lisa Camille Robinson
When I tell friends back home in Jamaica that I’ve moved to Australia, their faces contort with a look of concern, confusion and curiosity.
I know why. Jamaicans usually immigrate to the closer, more familiar shores of the United States, so they think it’s pretty ballsy that I’ve ventured so far from my family. Moreover, they assume that it would be daunting to move to a “white country” with a reputation for discrimination. So without fail, people always then ask me, “How do you manage? Isn’t Australia racist?”
And I always struggle with my answer.
Yes, I am still wrestling with the challenges of settling into my new home.
My biggest and most consistent opponent has been finding suitable employment. By the time my fifth job in five years ended, I was questioning if this popular notion about Australia was true. None of those jobs were within my skill-set nor the kind of work I wanted to do. As a result of not being able to get a job in my field, I had reluctantly resorted to ones that paid the bills.
I wondered: Were my challenges with finding relevant work, evidence of a racist Australia? Or was I just not competent?
I had arrived in Australia on Friday May 13th, 2011. Despite the ominous date, I was floating on a cloud of infinite imagined possibility. I have a Bachelor in Journalism, a Masters in Film and TV, and years of experience working as a Producer/Presenter in Jamaica. On that glorious day when I found out my skilled sponsored permanent residency visa was granted, I was elated, thinking that I would be picking from a bouquet of job opportunities. Instead, I found myself in tears and sucking my thumb pricked by hidden thorns.
The State that had sponsored my residency had mostly public service jobs, so as a permanent resident, I would not be considered for many of the positions that were of interest to me, because they required citizenship. When I applied for roles in the private sector, I was hit with “no Australian experience” as a reason for rejection.
How could a system that encouraged immigration sit within an environment that dissuaded integration? Around 190,000 permanent visas (both migration and humanitarian) are granted annually.  What happens after the visas are granted? What are the avenues available for new immigrants to be integrated into the work force using the skill-sets that had gotten them here?
One professional body that acknowledged this problem and created a solution is Engineers Australia. With only 50% of overseas-born engineers in Australia working in their field of expertise, compared to 63% of Australian-born engineers, they collaborated with Navitas Workforce Solutions, to create a professional program that helps immigrant engineers find jobs. If more integration programs were available across a wider cross-section of industries, perhaps there would be more accessible opportunities for immigrants like me.
That first year, after weeks of rejection and tears, I chose the path trod by many people in my position. I took a job outside my field - in sales.
I hated it. I endured 18 months.
Then I was hit by a new wave of optimism. “What if I moved to Sydney?”
Surely, the bustling cosmopolitan media mecca would have more options for a young producer/presenter. Convinced that Sydney was the more viable option, I packed my life into my little car and headed for the coast. In Sydney, I survived on savings for three months while I again tried to secure a job related to my qualifications. But the “NO AUSTRALIAN EXPERIENCE” was stamped across my resume again and again. Was this a euphemism for discrimination?
Based on my experience, I concluded that some of the reasons employers were giving for rejecting immigrants were: 1) Employers thought they did not understand the Australian work environment 2) They would not fit in 3) They would not have local contacts.
But how would these concerns be resolved if they are never given a chance?
“It’s a vicious cycle,” says Catalina Lopera, a Colombian who also immigrated to Australia on a skilled permanent visa. In the four years since arriving, she has also been unsuccessful in securing a job in her area of expertise, Public Relations and Events. “They want you to have all this local experience. Yet when you first get here you can’t find a job in your field, so you do something else. Then when you later apply again [although you’ve been working in Australia] you still don’t have local experience in your field,” she says, her voice thick with frustration. She even pursued a Masters thinking it would help, but sadly “it doesn’t seem to make a difference.”
In any job, new employees are usually required to undergo training. Therefore the “no Australian experience” is not a logical disqualifying factor for most jobs. Closing doors on suitable applicants using this method screams of polite discrimination. Controlled immigration is meant to address the skills shortage problem. But on the ground, many employers are resistant to capitalizing on the talent available to them.
I love that Australia is a migration nation and I am here to “have a go”. But I would prefer to play on a level playing field where there are more initiatives, like Engineer Australia’s integration program. Without employers being more accommodating and open to qualified legal immigrants, Australia is not realising the full value of its skilled migration programs. As it now stands, there is reason to assume that there is some discrimination in the process.
 Migration to Australia: a quick guide to statistics; http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1516/Quick_Guides/MigrationStatistics
Lisa Camille is a freelance writer and content producer based in Sydney. She hears a story in every moment and loves the power of the written word to change minds, open hearts and take you to hidden places in your psyche. Born and bred in Jamaica, her writing is textured with the colour and charisma that echoes ricochets off the island.