Refugees who are living in Australia could help to alleviate current trade shortages, according to the head of a social enterprise which places refugees in trade and labor roles.

During a recent interview, Hedayat Osyan (pictured above – middle), founder of social enterprise CommUnity Construction, told Sourceable that Australia has an opportunity to leverage some of those who arrive each year under our refugee intake program to help alleviate current shortages in trade and labour roles.

“Australia accepts around 15,000 refugees from overseas each year (see below),” Osyan said.

“If you can train them, you can help to fill this gap (in construction trades and labour) without any extra costs to the Australian government or Australian companies who are struggling to get workers.”

Osyan’s comments come as Australia faces an unprecedented shortage of workers in construction to deliver a record number of single-detached homes as well as a massive pipeline of infrastructure work.

In March, job vacancies for many categories of trade and/or laborer roles registered their highest March monthly reading during any year since detailed records began in 2006, according to job vacancy data from the National Skills Commission.

Under its Refugee and Humanitarian Program, Australia has a range of visas which offer protection to those who are subject to persecution in their home country.

Those who are living offshore can apply for a Subclass 200, 201, 203 or 204 visa. Each of these enable refugees to come to Australia and to live and work in here on a permanent basis.

The number of places which are available under these visa categories is restricted each year. Typically, Australia allocates around 15,000 places per year. In 2021/22, 13,750 places were allocated under the program.

For those who have already arrived in Australia, the type of visa for which they can apply varies according to whether they are here legally (e.g. through a tourist or student visa) or illegally. Those who are in Australia legally can apply for a permanent protection visa, which allows them to live and work in Australia indefinitely. Those who are not in Australia legally must apply for either a Temporary Protection visa or Safe Haven Enterprise visa. Such visas allow them to live and work in Australia for a limited period of three and five years respectively.

As stated above, each of the above visas allow refugees to work in Australia.

A slightly different situation applies to those who arrive in Australia seeking asylum but do not have or are yet to obtain a refugee visa. Such people may be granted a bridging visa which allows them to stay whilst their application for a refugee visa is being assessed. Depending on the specific conditions attached to their visa, they may or may not be allowed to work.

[Note: since 2013, a hardline border policy has meant that anyone who attempts to arrive specifically via boat is either returned to their country of departure or taken to an offshore processing centre to have their claims for asylum processed. Even if they are subsequently assessed to be legitimate refugees, such people are not resettled within Australia (see here for details.)].

Speaking particularly about CommUnity Construction, Osyan – himself a refugee who arrived from Afghanistan around ten years ago – started the organisation after seeing many of his fellow refugees either struggle to find work or being exploited.

Much of the challenge for these people involved a lack of understanding of both their rights under workplace law and the resources available to them.

To help overcome this, CommUnity Construction connects refugee workers with companies to perform tasks such as tiling, waterproofing, painting, air-conditioning and cleaning.

Many of the workers have practical experience from their home countries.

Before introducing them to employers, CommUnity provides basic English language instruction as well as training on how to operate within an Australian workplace culture and important information on workplace safety.

The organisation then connects participants with local TAFEs or registered training organisations (RTOs), where they complete their qualifications to work within their selected trade.

Thus far, CommUnity Construction has trained and placed 68 people. Each of these were previously reliant on welfare but are now qualified tilers, painters and cleaners.

Three have since gone on to establish their own companies and employ their own staff.

Osyan says the employment of refugees in construction has several benefits.

For employers and the construction industry, refugees can help to fill critical gaps in skills and labour.

For Australia generally, placing refugees in employment can help to reduce welfare expenditure and instead help those who arrive on our shores to make a substantial and positive contribution.

Meanwhile, having refugees engaged in meaningful work can deliver benefits for our social fabric by helping them to integrate and engage more effectively with broader Australian society.

Most important, however, are the benefits for refugees themselves. These include the ability to provide for their family, a sense of personal satisfaction from performing gainful and meaningful work and a greater sense of belonging in Australia.

When hiring refugees, Osyan says several things are important.

First, employers need to check and confirm that the person holds a valid visa which entitles them to work. In doing this, employers should ask workers to provide their visa.

Second, language can be a barrier during recruitment.

On these points, CommUnity Construction can help by acting as an intermediary (see above).

Third, it is important to understand that refugees coming from places such as Afghanistan and Iran can have cultural norms and attitudes which differ from those in Australia.

When speaking and listening, for example, some refugees may avoid eye-contact. Employers and co-workers should be understanding of this notwithstanding that eye contact is preferred in Australia.

Meanwhile, employers should also ensure that workers are informed about available supports and are comfortable in asking questions or raising concerns.

In addition, some refugees coming from traumatised backgrounds can be prone to frustration and high tempers. Employers need to be understanding of this and allow the person time to become comfortable and more settled in working in Australia.

Finally, it is important for employers to set broader expectations about treatment of all workers including refugees and train co-workers on how to interact with their refugee colleagues.

Workers should be informed, for example, about the traumatised nature of the background from which some refugees have come. They should also be taught to speak more simply and to use less slang when dealing with culturally and linguistically diverse colleagues.

Particularly in light of the blue-collar nature of the construction workforce, this is important as many co-workers may not fully appreciate the traumatised background from which some refugees come.

At any rate, sentiment and attitudes toward refugees are sadly not always positive or welcoming.

Australia has a shortage of workers in construction trades.

If managed well, the thousands of refugees who arrive each year could form part of the solution.