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When we think of the term 'diversity', what is it that usually comes to mind? Some of the terms that diversity often describes are gender, age, language, ethnicity, cultural background, sexual orientation, religious belief and family responsibilities. Williams (2001) explains that diversity also refers to the other ways in which people are different, such as educational level, life experience, work experience, socio-economic background, personality and marital status. Workplace diversity involves recognising the value of individual differences and managing them in the workplace. Australian society is becoming multicultural at an exponential rate due to the increasing migrant population and their descendents (reference). Many of these individuals who enter into the workforce, or are preparing to find work are limited English proficient. According to the 1998 Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, an individual with limited English proficiency is a secondary school student, adult, or out-of-school youth with limited ability to speak, read, write, or understand English and whose native language is not English or who lives in a family or community environment where a language other than English is dominant. These individuals come from a variety of social, economic, and educational backgrounds (Friedenberg 1995; Willette, Haub, and Tordella. 1988). Their literacy levels are equally diverse. Much had been written about barriers to employment that immigrants face when entering the work place; however this paper will address some more specific barriers refugees and immigrant communities face in the context of employment, such as whether linguistic and ethnic diversity produce independent effects on employee attitudes and to examine whether differing proportions of non-native English-speaking employees impacts native-speakers' views of their co-workers and advancement opportunities. It also aims to address the issue in question which is at the root of the lack of equality of opportunity, principally affects the employment opportunities available to legal residents whose level of proficiency of English (or lack of) marks them out as being unqualified, and different from the native-speaker population.
The aim of this paper is to provide further evidence that supports previous research, and to demonstrate that English fluency functions as a marketable job skill that improves wages and employees who lack the proficiency in English are at a greater disadvantage and have lower chances of moving forward in the work place. It will also illustrate the steps which were taken in order to collect data, the participants who were involved and the implications of some the responses that were recorded from each participants. The study was conducted in workplace that was very culturally diverse, which provided insight into the different perspective from employees.
The research was conducted at a factory in Werribee called "Marsolino's Wholesale Fruit & Vegetable Warehouse". There were six participants who took part in the research, each of whom were from different ethical backgrounds and possessed different levels of proficiency in English. The participants were ; Lan Nguyen and Ly Nguyen, a female and male Vietnamese who have lived in Australia for 10 years. They spoke little English and could only engage in short simple conversations. The two other participants were students, one who was from China and the other was a student from India. These participants, Ricky Zhang and Nisha Takhi were both in Australia for studies; however Nisha showed a slightly better English-language fluency than Ricky, both were the same age and have been in Australia for two years. The remaining two participants held a much higher position at the workplace, and one was an Australian-born citizen who worked alongside an Australian-Born Italian man. Their names were Robert Blanch and Massimo Castelletti, respectively. Both were highly fluent in English.
The questions were administered to each participant at different times, and their responses were collected individually with no other participant present to affect responses. Participants were interviewed according to their work schedules and break times were taken into account for an appropriate time to administer questions. The data was not collected in a formal matter where participants had to answer specific questions, but gathered through the form of informal conversation and simple questions on how they generally felt about the work place and the cultural diversity that the employees brought to the workplace. These questions evolved to specific aspects that were further analysed later.
Participants who did not grow up in Australia reported had prior working experience in their home country. They also agreed that the settling transition was difficult but reported that working in Australia was generally better than in their country of origin, particularly when it comes to issues around employer/employee relationships. One participant response in regards to this matter
During the interview sessions, Robert and Massimo were asked a few questions about their perceptions of immigrant employees and to how they felt about implementing the work place policy. All participants were in employment at the time of interviews. There was a general consensus that participants generally enjoyed working there. Robert, the supervisor in charge of this division perceive difference as valuable and they are eager to integrate and learn from each other, and they value diversity and employees who have strong work ethics and commitment to their roles
"it's a multicultural work environment, and the people who we see here everyday are lovely. It's nice to learn about different cultures and I always laugh about the stories they tell me"
For the non-native English speaking Adults, Lan and Ly, they were eagered to come to into a workplace with other local employees where they felt could be a good opportunity for them to improve their English skills and understand more about the Australian culture, as their previous job was manufacturing clothes that was a home-based business which meant that they had fewer opportunities to interact with other English speaking people.
Translated from Vietnamese - "it was jackpot to land a job in this place because we did not speak fluent English but they knew we would work hard"
Ricky and Nisha, who also did not grow up in Australia agreed that the settling transition was difficult but reported that working in Australia was an opportunity for them to improve on their English skills that could assist them while they were pursuing their studies.
Ricky "I want to learn some more English and there are many locals in this workplace and the people are friendly here
Nisha - "at first it was hard for me to understand because Australians speak very fast and accent is very strong but I think it's good for me because I can get use to it and it can help me for school"
For the non-native speakers, there is a common interest in that they seek companies with more local employees to be able to interact with different cultures and improve their communication skills. There was also an acknowledgement that participants faced some difficult situations when they first started working in an environment where English was the main spoken language.
Some of the issues identified from the responses of participants included; not being able to speak fluent English is a disempowering experience for some employees at work. It locks them out of peer social network and support, and more importantly, exposes them to systemic and structural disempowerment. Some participants raised the issue of their discomfort in communication with English speakers. This is usually due to cultural but mainly language differences. The first identified issue was seen in the response from Lan Nguyen, who expressed that although her and her husband had been at the company for several years, they did not know how to speak with their employer in regards to a pay rise, or to be transferred to another department. They explained that this was disempowering because while they had been at this position for a while, others who have come in after them have been able to move forward to other departments when they have asked the boss. They feel that because they have not spoken to their manager about the desire to move or change that they're seen as quite content in their current role.
Translated from Vietnamese "the workload is not very hard but we do not know how to ask for pay rise or different job in another department because we cannot speak English well so they are happy to keep us here all the time"
This shows that there were advantages in speaking English that these participants did not have access to, such as; increases the chances of getting a better job and enabling them to confide in their employers about any concerns they may have had about roles in which they were assigned to.
Massimo expressed his concern that when diversity becomes a burden in workplaces, individuals see little value in difference and more of an obligation to not appear prejudiced. He feels that sometimes their lack of English skills can put them at risk in workplace but he does not know how to approach his work colleagues to demonstrate to them the correct way of performing certain tasks at work.
"I don't want to offend but sometimes they do not understand correct procedure, maybe because they are young or new to Australia but I feel frustrated explaining"
This is particularly vital in some industries where the working conditions can be quite dangerous and accidents may occur. The employees are operating packaging, cutting machineries that can be quite dangerous. In these situations, it is important to be able to follow safety procedures, read signs and to quickly understand and follow instructions. (reference) This task can become quite challenging for participants who do not understand manuals which are written in English and can put them at a greater risk of getting injured if they are unaware of the operations of these machineries.
Another identified barrier is the cultural differences that some employees experience at workplace; the positive and negative experiences have been reported by different participants. Some participants who are new to the Australian culture have found difficulties in adjusting to cultural norms at their workplace, which it was reported that as a result of this, there has been quite a few incidents where a misunderstand has occurred due to cultural differences. Participants are aware that not participating may exclude them from the social network and support, and other important workplace information. An inability to adjust to workplace culture does have potential to disadvantage employees who are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, particularly where cultural practices conflict with workers' values and beliefs.
Robert - "we have had a few incidents where the language barrier have caused misunderstanding"
Ly - "Sometimes we feel very angry by the way the boss orders us to do certain task because she is 15 years younger than us and we feel that we are being disrespected when she is telling us in front of our other work colleague. We feel disempowered, and there has been occasions where we've had problems with management, and not having the language, when you're upset, your language gets more disempowered, and you get muddled up and you don't' get the right words, and it's very hard to express how we feel and when you're in a situation like that you get so upset, the English language is already difficult, and it becomes harder because you're translating everything in your brain, but then when you're upset, you just can't find the words"
With this being said, some participants have also reported some positive cultural differences that they've seen in the work place, and it is mainly to do with workplace rights. Ricky explains that he feels empowered by his ability to understand the rights of workers in a work place, which enables him to successfully transition from the culture they leave behind to Australian workplace culture. For most participants, this is a new and very welcome change. Things like being able to raise issues with their boss is change they are unfamiliar with back in their home country. Although Ricky admits there hasn't been an incident where an issue was raised to his employer, he has witnessed others who have approached their employer if they had any work matters that needed to be addressed.
Ricky - "Back home, it's not like thatâ€¦.if we had any complaint about working conditions we could not say this to the boss because we will get fired and lose our job. There is also no annual leave in my previous jobs, doesn't matter what I do, even if just stay at home or going somewhere, anywhere .. even if its our right, you have to give excuse, so many excuse. And sick leave as well, is very hard"
Another issue that shows to be of concern to the native-speakers were in regards to productivity and occupational health, safety and welfare. When it comes to work-place policy, they see less value in the diversity and lean more towards a moral obligation to provide access to those different.
Robert - "they know the basics for machine operation but we make sure that we can demonstrate as thoroughly as possible the importance of work safety"
Massimo - "sometimes it's hard to communicate when it comes to serious matters such as faulty equipment or wrong packaging without offending our colleagues"
There is consensus that understanding procedures at work is important for participants and their communities. As evidenced in the above discussions, understanding workplace policy and procedures empower workers, and enable them to successfully train other employees and it also puts them in a position of power where they can train new employees coming into the work place.
From the responses of native English speaking partipants, it shows that while they value diversity and believe that employees who have little English have strong work ethics and commitment to their roles, they are still required to develop the linguistic skills necessary to express themselves in English. They need the opportunity to acquire the interaction skills necessary to negotiate ideas across languages and cultures. As experience in high-tech and other complex work environments has shown, foreign-born professionals with strong technical skills are often limited in their opportunities because they lack the social and linguistic skills deemed necessary for effective communications, team building, and conflict resolution (reference)
Physical appearances, religious or other cultural factors might in certain circumstances also be a consideration, but it seems that the fact of being English-language proficient is the most enduring barrier to equal treatment in work places. This idea has previously been supported by the findings which resulted in a survey conducted by Maes et.al (1997), which proposes that oral communication skills have been identified as an attribute that is highly regarded in a workplace. Their study conducted in the Greater Gulf Coast area, revealed that oral communication in English is the most preferred pre-requisites that employers take into consideration when it comes to recruiting new staff. In addition to being one of the most essential skills for employment, oral communication skills is a quality that can help an individual succeed and gain promotion (Lee, 2003; Crosling & Ward, 2001). This view is further supported by Huckins & Olsen (1984) who believe that employees who do not demonstrate good oral communication skills are rarely given managerial responsibility. Effective oral communication skills are vital to people who hold managerial positions because managers need to demonstrate, be attentive, show enthusiasm, motivate, guide, coach, encourage, facilitate and direct group members to benefit individuals and their organisations. All participants recognize the significance of language as a key to successful settlement in Australia. Participants recognize proficiency in English is a desirable goal, even amidst seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Participants are also aware that one of the most effective routes to English proficiency is through workforce participation. Given the right level of support and encouragement, participants can overcome difficulties in language acquisition.