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The Economic Rights of Migrant and Refugee Women

Race Discrimination


Pallavi Sinka President,

Thank you to the Immigrant Women’s Speak Out Association (IWSA) for inviting me to speak at this symposium.  IWSA has been representing immigrant and refugee women for almost thirty years. They have demonstrated consistent and strong leadership in this space, and I commend their work bringing this symposium together.

May I also acknowledge the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, the Traditional Owners of the land upon which we gather today. I pay my respects to your elders, past and present.

Today’s symposium is intended to focus on the extent to which immigrant women are subject to racism.

In discussing this issue, my perspective, as President of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), is to view the needs of migrant women through the lens of human rights. Research indicates that migrant and refugee women are frequently excluded from full economic participation in Australian society. Such exclusion contributes to their social and economic disadvantage, perpetuates systemic inequality and racism, and is a violation of numerous human rights, in particular the right to non-discrimination.

While it is generally true that women experience many levels of discrimination and disadvantage, the experience of migrant and refugee women is compounded by their ethnicity and immigrant status.

Not only is gender inequality a breach of human rights, but it also costs us all – its costs women, men, the community, business and also the national economy. The World Economic Forum has noted that:

A country’s competitiveness depends on its human talent—the skills, education and productivity of its workforce. Because women account for one-half of a country’s potential talent base, a nation’s competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilises its women.[1]

Increasing women’s participation in the workforce equally has benefits for all of us – for the community, for business and for the Australian economy. According to Goldman Sachs, narrowing the gap between male and female employment rates in Australia could potentially boost GDP by 11%.[2]  In addition, the Grattan Institute reports that an increase in female labour force participation rate from Australia’s current level to that of Canada (62.4%) would increase Australia’s economic growth in the next decade by $25 billion.[3]

The primary point I would like to make today is that it is not enough, at a general level, to promote the participation of women in the economic life of Australia. We need to recognise the multifaceted effect of disadvantage faced by migrant and refugee women and to develop strategies to give a voice to their very particular experiences. I would like to explore how race and gender intersect to create disadvantage and discrimination for migrant and refugee women, especially when they are trying to participate in, and gain the benefits of, the labour market.

I’d like to begin with a short audio clip from the show Mongrel Nation,  aired on Radio National. It is an excerpt that allows us to hear, first hand, the experience of a migrant family in Australia

[Audio Recording] So my father survived the Cambodian genocide. He sleeps with the light on because he’s afraid of the dark. Terrible things happened in the dark when he was surviving the Killing Fields from 1975 to 1979, so if he can’t see anything it’s a threat. And both my parents are refugees. But my mother had a harder time. And you’ll probably find that a lot of migrant women do have a harder time because they’re usually the ones who stay at home. And if they work, they work in the back garage. So they’ll spend two or three decades just in a garage by themselves while kids are at school. There’s no opportunity to learn much English, there’s no opportunity for much socialising. So you’re sort of locked in for two decades. And then when you emerge, you know, into the world, you might be a successful migrant, might have built a big house somewhere, your kids are at university, you realise you don’t have any friends and you’re very lonely. And when you turn on the television, you don’t understand a word they’re saying.

Systemic racism

Systemic inequality and systemic racism do exist in Australian society. The AHRC is in a special position to make this observation because we handle about 20,000 inquiries and formal complaints each year. Of the formal complaints that we try to conciliate, 25% are made under the Racial Discrimination Act. (57% increase in complaints to the Commission based on racial abuse, especially through the internet and in public places.)

Most complaints under the RDA are about employment. Indeed, the link between all human rights based complaints and employment is very strong as people know almost instinctively, that if they are denied access to work, they will find it very hard to succeed in building their lives, educating their children and securing their futures.

We all know what racism looks like – to most of us its actions, words and behaviours that discriminate, hurt and offend.

But possibly the most damaging aspect of racism is that it is often systemic within institutions, governments, business and the corporate world. Systemic racism leads to structural inequality.

There is a clear correlation between discrimination and inequality. Research shows that racial discrimination contributes to social and economic disadvantage;[4] likewise, social and economic exclusion can exacerbate experiences of racial discrimination.[5]

We know that women experience many levels of discrimination and disadvantage and that these are a major source of inequality in participation in the workplace and also public life. However, more attention needs to be paid to the specific types of discrimination and exclusion experienced by migrant and refugee women.

Supporting migrant and refugee women to engage, with equality, in the labour force is not only vital for the community, for business and for the Australian economy, but necessary if we are to fully address systemic racism in Australia.

To meet this challenge we need specific, targeted approaches that recognise the multi-dimensional ways in which migrant and refugee women are subject to disadvantage. We need to ensure that migrant and refugee women have a voice in the community to gain participation across all levels of workforce.

Economic participation of women

To begin, we know addressing women’s participation in the economy is vital for achieving gender equality.

The gender wage gap in Australia continues to stand at 17.5%.[6]  The gender pay gap crosses all sectors and all sizes of businesses.[7]

Some attempts have been made to address the most direct forms of this discrimination – for example through test cases.

In the Social and Community Services Workers Equal Pay case considered by Fair Work Australia(FWA) FWA found that social and community services workers did not receive remuneration equal to that of employees of state and local governments who perform similar work, and that gender has been important in creating that pay gap.[8]

FWA awarded more than 200,000 social and community services sector workers, pay-rises of between 19 and 41 per cent. This was a vital decision because it recognised that gender was an underlying reason for the pay gap.

The gender gap also arises in respect of retirement income and savings. The average superannuation payout for women in Australia is just over half (57%) those of men.[9] This is the result of gender inequalities experienced by women over a lifetime and leads to poverty, especially once they are over 55 years of age

The current superannuation system overwhelmingly disadvantages women who are more likely to move in and out of paid work to care for children, family and household members.

A significant contributor to the gap is the reduced workforce participation of women due to unpaid caring work they do for children, family and household members with disability, for those who are chronically ill or frail due to old age. In Australia in 2009, 4.1 million employed people were carers of children or other family and household members,[10] that is, nearly two in five employees, and the large majority of these are women. In the 15-64 years age group 72.5 per cent of primary carers were women.[11]

Women who are unpaid carers have considerably lower rates of employment and are more likely to work in part-time and casual jobs. Less than 23 per cent of female primary carers were in full-time employment at any point across the age groups.[12]

Economic participation of migrant, refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse women

According the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2009, there are over 1 million migrant women employed in Australia, of who over 600,000 were born in other than main English-speaking countries.[13]

We know that women are disadvantaged in the labour force simply because they are women–migrant and refugee women even more so.

Research indicates that migrant and refugee women are relatively disadvantaged in the labour market. Migrant women are at least 7 % less likely to be employed than women born in Australia.[14]

This is true internationally also. Migration research in the OECD indicatesthat much of the growth in the employment rates of migrant women occurs in low-skilled occupations[15] and that qualified migrant women face much larger gaps in employment and occupational attainment than their counterparts born in their country of residence.[16] The ethnicity of migrant women affects their employment success in the host country and that qualified migrant women from non-OECD member countries are principally disadvantaged. [17]

This is consistent with evidence that disadvantage is compounded when women are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Culturally and linguistically diverse migrant women have historically been employed in lower-paying and lower-status occupations relative to Australian-born women. [18]

Barriers to labour force participation of migrant women

We know that there are many barriers to the participation of women in the Australian labour force: level of education, presence of children, affordability and availability of childcare, disincentives in tax and benefit systems, parental leave policies, availability of part time work and cultural attitudes to women working. [19]

For migrant women these barriers are compounded by additional factors such as: language skills, level to which home country work experience and qualifications are accepted locally, amount of local work experience, local levels of discrimination and the ability to network.[20]


Evidence indicates that of all the determinants for migrant women’s labour force participation, one of the most significant is the availability and affordability of childcare.[21] Foreign nationals are more likely than nationals to cite family responsibilities (32% as against just under 20%) as a reason for staying outside the labour force.[22]

Language fluency

Fluency in the local language is vital for a migrant’s integration, especially into the labour market.  As such, fluency is a strong predictor of employment and salary.[23] Research shows that migrant women can face greater barriers to language acquisition than migrant men.

Lack of host country work experience and qualifications

The preference of employers for local qualifications and work experience obviously disadvantages migrants in the labour market.Migrant women who delay entering the labour market (e.g. for childcare or eldercare reasons) may face greater difficulties when they do try to do so in the future.[24]

Educational levels

Generally increasing education levels of women from upper secondary to tertiary has been shown to have a positive effect on women’s employment.[25]A similar result could be expected for migrant women, especially if they obtain their qualifications in the local country.[26]


Migrant women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds face discrimination on the basis of both their race and sex, which can be direct or indirect.Recent research by migrant women’s organisations, such as the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) found that discrimination was a dominant theme in the experience of culturally and linguistically diverse women in leadership roles and roles that lead to leadership positions. This discrimination was experienced with both gender and ethnicity affecting culturally and linguistically diverse women’s participation.  Moreover, discrimination was as common for those who worked in multicultural settings as it was for those in mainstream sectors. In both settings “women confronted cultural issues around gender and hierarchy and highlighted that women continued to have to work harder than men to be seen as equal.” [27]

The research also showed that a number of women on boards found it necessary to “silence their own sense of identity based on their cultural and ethnic diversity.”[28]

Host and home country effects

Home country views on women’s employment, if unfavourable, could negatively impact labour force participation in the local country. [29]  The labour market needs of the local country can also impact labour force participation of migrant women – influencing the what opportunities are available to them. [30]

Also “discouragement effect” could contribute to low labour force participation by women migrants if their particular ethnic group faces disproportionately high unemployment rates.[31]

Job Search Networks

A significant barrier facing migrants is that many jobs are filled through informal networks, disadvantaging those without access to those networks.Migrant women may have less of these networks than migrant men or, when they do have them, the jobs they provide access to may be more limited.[32]


As this research shows, it is the combination of race, class, and gender that creates a more complex reality for migrant women than any single attribute on its own.[33]
This is supported by FECCA who noted in a submission to National Human Rights Action Plan that:

women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds can face double disadvantage, suffering from discrimination on the basis of both their gender and culture. We can see this particularly in the employment sphere were CALD women can earn less, and struggle more to attain employment in the first place. [34]

Moreover, women migrants from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds could be said to subject to “triple jeopardy” as their migrant background may form an additional intersecting aspect affecting their engagement in the labour market.[35]

International recognition of the effects of racial discrimination against women

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has also recognised the ways in which racial discrimination can affect women in special ways.

In their General recommendation XXV ‘Gender Related Dimensions of Racial Discrimination, the Committee notes:

The Committee notes that racial discrimination does not always affect women and men equally or in the same way. There are circumstances in which racial discrimination only or primarily affects women, or affects women in a different way, or to a different degree than men. Such racial discrimination will often escape detection if there is no explicit recognition or acknowledgement of the different life experiences of women and men, in areas of both public and private life.

Certain forms of racial discrimination may be directed towards women specifically because of their gender, such as sexual violence committed against women members of particular racial or ethnic groups …Racial discrimination may have consequences that affect primarily or only women, such as pregnancy resulting from racial bias-motivated rape. Women may also be further hindered by a lack of access to remedies and complaint mechanisms for racial discrimination because of gender-related impediments, such as gender bias in the legal system and discrimination against women in private spheres of life. [35]

Rise of insecure or precarious work: 457 visas

One system aspect of the employment of women, and especially migrant women is that they are often employed in insecure work. This is a phenomenon of contemporary society that affects us all, but especially migrant women and women from different cultural and linguistic groups. Culturally and Linguistically Diverse women are over-represented in insecure employment fields, including industries such as manufacturing, accommodation and food services, cleaning and labouring. [37]

This is due to a number of factors including:

  • Level of English language skill
  • Australian skills recognition practices
  •  Limited capacity to engage with training courses, which can be expensive and difficult to get to without personal transport. [38]
  • Cultural and religious attitudes toward women’s roles and responsibilities, such as household and child care duties. [39]

Another contemporary phenomenon is that women’s caring responsibilities have led to an increased demand for unregulated work, exposing women and especially immigrant women to insecurity. [40]

At a recent conference on Access and Equity in Sydney, problems with insecure work were raised:

Exploitation, low pay, sexual harassment, racism and discrimination were just a few of the issues identified by women attendees. Attendees also raised concern over placement in jobs that they considered outside of their range of experience, including meat processing factories and employment involving heavy lifting. This inappropriate placement has led to injuries, which the women said they are afraid to report out of fear that they would lose their job.[41]

One particular group of migrant women who experience systemic insecure employment are temporary migrant workers on 457 visas. These women are particularly precarious because their ability to remain in the host country is often dependent on maintaining the goodwill of an employer and staying in a job.

Yet another contemporary phenomenon is the rise in temporary migrant workers throughout the world. Currently in Australia there are over 28,000 temporary migrant women on 457 visas, a quarter of whom work in the health care industry as nurses and paramedics. [42] Temporary migration has become more significant in Australia, supple­menting and now starting to overtake permanent migra­tion[43]
457 holders have no citizenship entitlements or protections. Services to 457 visa holders are limited in a number of ways:

  • Lack of access to Medicare (except for citizens from a country with which the Australian Government has signed Reciprocal Health Care Agreements),
  • Limited access to free public school education for children in certain states (e.g. New South Wales)
  • Lack of access to Family Assistance or social security payments.[44]

Solutions – how can we improve migrant/refugee women’s economic participation?

Women’s economic empowerment is increasingly viewed as one of the most important contributing factors to achieving equality between women and men.

The same can be said for migrant and refugee women. Yet the experience of marginalisation, of discrimination, of racism is different to that of their native born sisters.

1. Intersectional approach

An intersectional approach considers how differ layers of discrimination interact to create unique experiences of disadvantage.

The intersection of multiple forms of discrimination means that there can be no single group of women to which all gender equality policies can be applied.[45] Understanding the differences between women’s experiences of discrimination is crucial if we are to develop targeted responses.

2.  Research, collect more data

We now realise that there is just not enough information – qualitative or quantitative, on the experiences of migrant, refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse women. [46]

Organisations such as FECCA and IWSA, point to the lack of research focusing on culturally and linguistically women in leadership positions in particular. They note that few reports investigate the effects of being an ethnic and gendered group, and that experiences of women tend to be presented as universal, with little attempt to address the particular experiences of CALD women.[47]

We support the call from these groups that there is a “critical need to develop new methodologies to identify the ways in which various forms of discrimination converge and impact on CALD Women” [48] and an “urgent need to promote the need for publicly accessible statistical data disaggregated by sex and ethnicity as a matter of course in all relevant data domains and collections and by all relevant agencies.” [49]

3. Initiatives and programs to foster labour market participation

The research done in 2005 and presented at the OECD and European Seminar, make offers a few keys initiatives to foster labour market participation of migrant women:

  • Work placements:  critical for enhancing the future work or training participation of migrant women including those with low educational qualifications. They provide much-needed host country work experience and improve self-confidence of women
  • Language classes: the availability and effectiveness of classes must be evaluated to understand the reasons why women migrants do or do not access them, and how successful they are in facilitating labour force participation.
  • Restrictions on migrants’ eligibility to work upon arrival: must be examined to gauge their effect on migrant women’s long-term labour market participation.
  • Availability, affordable and appropriate childcare for low income migrant women is vital. Public childcare provision may be particularly important, as migrant women may not have the financial means and support networks allowing them to make private arrangements.
  • Other aspects worth considering are: greater use of mentoring schemes, proactively engaging with employers to create job opportunities. [50]

4 Laws and policies to foster Labour market participation

Laws and policies are also required to promote employment equality of migrant women and address systemic discrimination.

While in Australia we have voluntary commitments focusing on women’s labour market participation, and efforts to improve cultural diversity in the workforce are beginning to emerge, there is nothing specifically targeted to migrant, refugee or culturally and linguistically diverse women. The AHRC supports the adoption of mandatory goal-setting and vigorous enforcement by government to ensure  increased employment for migrant women.[51]

5 Representation of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Women

To address systemic inequality faced by migrant and refugee women it is vital that their voices are heard. Supporting their participation in consultations, meeting and public life is essential to reaching this aim. It is particularly important to improve the representation of culturally and linguistically diverse women in leadership positions.

Promoting women in leadership is an important part of our work and there have been some positive improvements in this area recently. In the past few years, we’ve seen increasing numbers of women on government and corporate boards and we continue to advocate for increased representation of women in senior and management positions in all aspects of work, from academics to politicians; from non-profit organisations to big business. Today, Australia has the second highest percentage of women in public sector leadership positions in the world but we still have lots of work to do when it comes to the private sector. 

This is an encouraging achievement, but more work still needs to be done targeting culturally and linguistically diverse women in particular.

Recent research project on participation by women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds on boards and in decision-making positions noted that woman from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are consistently under-represented on boards in Australia. [52]

Literature reviewed as part of this project identified a range of strategies for increasing the representation of minority ethnic women on boards and in senior leadership roles. Including:

  • Collection of multi-Identity data sets
  • Establishment of advisory bodies/taskforces
  • Organisational statements of commitment/policies
  • Professional networks
  • Leadership development programs
  • Research/evidence based advocacy[53]

The AHRC, clearly as part of its mandate works towards improving gender equality in Australia.

This work is done largely through the functions of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. She monitors, advocates, educates and advises on the promotion and protection of gender equality – to this end she has made recommendations for addressing women’s economic security across their life time, increasing the representation of women in leadership and eliminating violence against women and sexual harassment, which significantly inhibit the achievement of gender equality.  .

Migrant and refugee women have a particular experience of disadvantage, a ‘triple jeopardy’ compounding ethnicity, immigrant status and gender. This discrimination costs us all. Although much excellent work has been done by migrant women’s organisations like IWSA, we can all acknowledge there is much more to do.

If we are truly address this systemic discrimination, it is not enough to promote the participation of women generally in labour market. We much recognise the multifaceted effect of disadvantage faced by migrant and refugee women and develop strategies to give a voice to their experiences.

I look forward to the AHRC’s ongoing work in this area. Thank you.

[1] World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2012. At (viewed 24 October 2013).

[2] Goldman Sachs JB Were Investment Research, Australia’s Hidden Resource: The Economic Case for Increasing Female Participation (2009). At (viewed 24 October 2013).

[3] J Daley, Game-changers: Economic reform priorities for Australia, Grattan Institute (2012). At (viewed 24 October 2013).

[4] Y Paradies, L Chandrakumar, N Klocker, M Frere, K Webster, M Burrell, & P McLean, Building on our strengths: a framework to reduce race-based discrimination and support diversity in Victoria: Full report (2009).

[5] M Ruteere, Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance (2012) UN Doc. HRC/20/33

[6] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Gender Pay Gap Statistics, (2013). At (viewed 15 September 2013).

[7] Equal Pay Alliance. Equal Pay Day 2013 Bulletin. Available at (viewed 24 October 2013)

[8] Equal Remuneration Case (2009) FWAFB 2700, 291.

[9] R Clare, Developments in the level and distribution of retirement savings, September 2011 (2011), p 10.

[10] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia 2009, Basic CURF, Version 3, CD-Rom (2009). Findings based on SPRC’s analysis of ABS CURF data.

[11] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Caring in the Community, Australia, Catalogue no. 4436.0 (2012), p 21, Table 8. At
(viewed 24 October 2013).

[12] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia 2009, Basic CURF, Version 3, CD-Rom (2009). Findings based on SPRC’s analysis of ABS CURF data.

[13] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Migrants, Forms of Employment, Australia, Nov 2009, Catelogue no 6359.0 (2009), Table 1. At (viewed on 24 October 2013).

[14] J Syed and P Murry,”Combating the English Language Deficit: the labour market experiences of migrant women in Australia” (2009) 19 (4) Human Resource Management Journal, p 416.

[15] J Syed and P Murry, note 14, p 415.

[16] J Syed and P Murry, note 14, p 415.

[17] J Syed and P Murry, note 14, p 415.

[18] J Syed and P Murry, note 14, p 416.

[19] A Heron, Migrant Women and the Labour Market: Diversity and Challenges (Paper for the OECD and European Seminar Brussels, 26-27 of September 2005), p. 4. At  (Viewed 24 October 2013).

[20] A Heron, note 19, p 4.

[21] A Heron, note 19, p 5.

[22] A Heron, note 19, p 5.

[23] A Heron, note 19, p 6.

[24] A Heron, note 19, p 8.

[25] A Heron, note 19, p 9.

[26] A Heron, note 19, p 9.

[27] FECCA, Promoting CALD Women's Participation on Boards and in Decision-Making Positions Final Report, (2013), p 30.  At (viewed October 24 2013).

[28] FECCA, note 27, p 30.

[29] A Heron, note 19, p 13.

[30] A Heron, note 19, p 13.

[31] A Heron, note 19, p 13.

[32] A Heron, note 19, p 13.

[33] J Syed and P Murry, note 14, p 415.

[34] FECCA, Submission on the Consultation draft Baseline Study on Human Rights in Australia (2011).   Available from (viewed on 24 October 2013).

[35] J Syed and P Murry, note 14, p 415.

[36] Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, General recommendation XXV ‘Gender Related Dimensions of Racial Discrimination’ (2000). Available at (viewed 24 October 2013).

[37] FECCA Submission to the Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work in Australia, (2011), p 11-12. Available from (viewed 24 October 2013).  

[38] FECCA, note 37, p 11-12.

[39] FECCA, note 37, p 11-12.

[40] O, Bursain, “Employment: Issues for immigrant women and their families” (2013) 20 Mosaic.  Available at (viewed 24 October 2013)

[41] FECCA, note 37, p 11-12.

[42] R Lai, Email Correspondence, Department of Immigration, 14 October 2013.

[43] M Boese, I Campbell, W Roberts, and J Tham, “Temporary Migrant Nurses in Australia: Sites and Sources of Precariousness” (2013) 24 The Economic and Labour Relations Review 24, p 319.

[44] M Boese, I Campbell, W Roberts, and J Tham, note 43, p 321.

[46] See, e.g. J Syed and P Murry, note 14 and FECCA, note 27.

[47] FECCA, note 27, p 28

[48] FECCA, note 27, p 4

[49] FECCA, note 27, p 4

[50] Heron, A (2005), Migrant Women and the Labour Market: Diversity and Challenges, OECD and European Seminar Brussels, 26-27 of September 2005, p 22-24

[51] A Heron, note 19, p 11.

[52] FECCA, note 27.

[53] FECCA, note 27, p 28.


Professor Gillian Triggs, President