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A 'brain drain' from China to a 'brain waste' in Australia

By Christina Ho - posted Tuesday, 28 September 2004

The Federal Government may pride itself on the success of its skilled migration program, but not all skilled migrants are able to find jobs that use their expertise, resulting in considerable loss of opportunity. Employment rates may be rising, but most skilled migrants end up in jobs which make little use of their abilities.

The Government's Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Australia shows that half of the migrants arriving since the mid-1990s who had been managers and administrators, were now employed as salespersons, tradespersons, clerks, machine operators and labourers. This drift to lower skilled jobs is especially pronounced among women. Even after being here more than 3 years, almost 40 per cent of women migrants were full-time housewives, double the level with that status before migration.

For women moving to Australia this can mean occupying more traditional gender roles than they had in their home countries, with many skilled women becoming financially dependent on their spouses for the first time.


And if the migrant is from a non-English-speaking background, then great difficulties can be encountered getting local recognition for their qualifications. After more than three years in Australia, less than a third of skilled migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds are in jobs where they regularly use their qualifications. Migrants from India, the Philippines and Hong Kong, who have competent English, share the same problem, indicating that it is a lack of "Australian English" - accent, slang, and so on - that holds back many newcomers.

Cultural differences may be real, although in many cases, racial discrimination is thinly disguised by employers' claims that migrant job applicants wouldn't "fit" into the workplace, they don't "present" well, or they don't display sufficient "initiative", "assertiveness" or other attributes defined in culturally specific ways.

The "Tiananmen Square generation" of mainland Chinese migrants fit into a highly skilled group that has faced dramatic "de-skilling". Mainland Chinese in Australia have tertiary education rates double the national average, yet are over-represented in low-skilled jobs such as labouring. In my research into Chinese migrant women in Australia, for example, I encountered dozens of women cleaning hotel rooms or sewing clothes in their living rooms and garages, who had previously worked as teachers, engineers and in other professions.

The Government's survey shows that while 72 per cent of employed mainland Chinese women who migrated worked in highly skilled occupations in China, only 30 per cent achieved similar work status in Australia, even after more than 3 years of residence in this country. A "brain drain" from China becomes a "brain waste" in Australia. Highly educated and keen to re-establish a career in Australia, Chinese migrants are often surprised to find their qualifications and experiences devalued by employers, who penalise them for not having local credentials and experience.

Women face the added burden of greater domestic responsibilities, having lost assistance from extended families and employer-provided child care that is common in urban China. Shut out of their professions, the migrants often opt for self-employment, or get exploitative low-skilled jobs. Mainland Chinese women, with Vietnamese women, make up the bulk of the clothing industry's outworkers, earning as little as $2 an hour.

On a deeper level, migration often results in a profound change in their sense of themselves as they move from being professional "career women" to low-skilled workers and housewives. They may enjoy their new family lives in Australia, and are grateful for the greater opportunities for their children, but their own careers are cut short.


One woman in my study, Jenny, had arrived with a masters degree in engineering and more than 10 years professional experience. Neither she nor her engineer husband could find suitable work. They instead opened an internet cafe in Sydney's inner-west, enabling her to care for her two children while earning some money. But she is frustrated at the lack of career opportunities for people like her. "I have many friends from China, they have master's degrees, but still it's difficult to find a good job," she said.

Although the Government increasingly selects migrants based on skills, once they are in the workforce, these skills are underutilised. While the official rhetoric is of "productive diversity", many employers prevent skilled migrants from full participation.

That institutional change is required to allow groups such as working mothers to effectively participate in the workforce is now recognised. Yet when it comes to migrants, the onus is on them to make all the accommodations.

No matter how skilled the migrant intake is, without this institutional change we will not reap the benefits that "productive diversity" has to offer. And in the meantime, countless migrants to this country will find themselves excluded from the migration "success story" that the Government would have us believe.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald September 21, 2004

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About the Author

Christina Ho is a lecturer in Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at UTS. She is the author of newly published book, Migration and Gender Identity: Chinese Women’s Experiences of Work, Family and Identity in Australia. She is also co-editor of the forthcoming volume, Beyond the Hijab Debates: New Conversations on Gender, Race and Religion.

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