Transition visa restrictions prevent skilled migrant women from working in professional careers

When Anam Irshad traveled from Pakistan to Australia, she sacrificed what luggage space she had for clothes to make room for her pharmacy books.

The pharmacist had worked hard to graduate and wanted to make sure she had the books for her return to her profession in Australia.

Nine years later, she hasn’t had the opportunity to use them.

“Sometimes I open them, I read them, [I think]OK, maybe I’ll use them in the future, but they’re still with me,” Ms Irshad said.

Ms Irshad is one of a cohort of professional migrant women who have been unable to resume their careers in Australia because they are on a bridging visa.

The total number of people on bridging visas in Australia hit a record high of 370,000 in 2022.

In Perth, where Ms Irshad is based, paediatricians, nurses, engineers and lawyers are among the women who have been unable to re-enter the workforce despite skills shortages and calls for migrants to help address them .

This week at the National Jobs Summit, the federal government announced it would raise the cap on permanent migration by 35,000 places in an effort to address a nationwide shortage of workers.

Visa restrictions stifle recycling efforts

But women on bridging visas who want to work or retrain to meet national standards cannot receive the study grants and childcare support available to Australian women.

They must also prepay tuition fees at international rates, which are several thousand dollars higher than those charged to Australian citizens.

Sobia Shah, Yuridyah Mulyadi and Anam Irshad have held bridging visas for several years.(ABC Radio Perth: Alicia Bridges)

Sobia Shah, who was a lawyer in Pakistan, created the Professional Migrant Women’s Network to help support affected women and create opportunities to help them re-skill.

Since the network was launched about two years ago, Ms Shah said she has heard of at least 100 professional women on bridging visas who have been unable to resume their careers.

Ms Shah, who is also supporting Curtin University research with a grant, said the creation of the network has also revealed the extent of the toll on women’s mental health.

“In our own country we have an identity… but here we are nothing,” she said.

“When I got here, I was just sitting at home and mentally it was torturing me.

“Like, what am I doing? Am I wasting myself?”

Ms Irshad said she sometimes felt like she had wasted the five years she spent earning her pharmacy degree.

“Missing all the family occasions, parties…it was all just studying,” she said.

“And now when you show up [and say] I am a pharmacist [people ask] Do you work?

“It’s… like a pinch.”

Hard to find local work opportunities

Ms Irshad said she had submitted countless inquiries online and in person at pharmacies with no response.

She felt that employers were afraid to give her a job without local work experience in her field.

She said a training course that would boost her qualifications would cost $16,000, compared to around $1,000 for an Australian student.

To create local work opportunities, Ms. Shah found funds to employ women in a program that raises awareness of the COVID-19 vaccine in migrant communities.

Sobia Shah smiling and sitting on a step in a garden at Curtin University
Sobia Shah created a network of professional migrant women to help them re-enter the labor market.(ABC Radio Perth: Alicia Bridges)

The women were able to connect with health professionals such as general practitioners, who guided the program while filling gaps in vaccine education.

Ms Irshad said it helped her regain her identity and confidence and feel more connected to her field.

“It was a great opportunity for me,” she said.

“When we spoke to people, the response was very overwhelming.

“When we deliver in our local languages, it was a plus for them to understand everything, to open up and ask questions to understand the whole procedure.”

The creation of the Professional Migrant Women’s Network was supported by Lisa Hartley, co-director of the Center for Human Rights Education at Curtin University in Perth.

WA Premier Mark McGowan has announced a series of incentives to attract skilled migrants and address critical skills shortages.

As the Jobs and Skills Summit brought together politicians from across Australia last week, Dr Hartley said policymakers should look to migrants on bridging visas to address job shortages.

Small changes could have a big impact

“A very simple solution would be to allow them to have the right to work,” she said.

“[Let them] are actually contributing to the Australian economy because they’re effectively sitting there and they can’t even access social security benefits or work.”

Dr Hartley said creating training and development opportunities and providing childcare subsidies like those offered to Australians would remove significant barriers for professional women who wanted to return to their careers.

Ms Shah is currently juggling motherhood and network management with her scholarship at Curtin University.

Having gained more experience through college and networking, she is now preparing to apply for paralegal jobs as a step towards re-entering her field.

“Policy Makers [should] think about having potential in your own communities,” Ms Shah said.

“If you give them [migrants] a chance, just a little training, or just a little opportunity, they can be of great use.

“Especially women because they are hungry to do something.”

About Donnie R. Losey

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