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How we can break barriers to protect refugees

Matthew Powell, CEO, Breaking Barriers

27 March 2017

It is a stark fact that half of refugees in the UK are currently unemployed, compared to the national average of 6%. This is despite refugees having higher levels of education, skills and qualifications than the UK average and possessing an eagerness to work and being mostly of working age. This can mean, without support, they are left vulnerable to unethical employers and dangerous working conditions which are linked to modern slavery. With the second anniversary of the Modern Slavery Act taking place on 26 March, now is the time for businesses to take this issue seriously and contemplate how they can help.

We set up Breaking Barriers to address the disconnect between the number of skilled potential employees, and the fact so few of them are working. We believe businesses are missing out on diversifying their workforce and plugging the skills gap. It is also reinforcing an incorrect narrative that refuges are not willing to work, where we have always found quite the opposite to be true.

There is a real danger for refugees not able to find quality employment. They are consistently overrepresented in low-paid, dangerous jobs. With traditional employment barred to them, and unaware of their legal rights, many are left with no choice but to accept long hours in dangerous conditions. Often, the organisations which refugees are able to find work with are not those that wish to develop their skills and careers. This means they are not able to learn English for example, or otherwise upskills themselves. This can lead to being trapped in poverty despite working and puts the breaks on them achieving social mobility while also isolating them from wider society.

Systemic barriers exist which stop refugees finding meaningful employment. Experience is a huge obstacle as often, being new to the country, refugees will lack relevant British work experience and the necessary knowledge of British workplace culture and systems to find, apply for and interview for work. There is also discrimination, driven by the persistent narrative that refugees do not want to work, and even without this, it can be difficult for potential employers to recognise refugees’ skills, qualifications and experiences.

Our solution is to form partnerships with businesses to create a holistic approach to the issues. Our Employment Academy is a six-month programme where our corporate partners offer refugees paid part-time placements. Each company takes on one or more refugees for 16 hours a week. During the placement, refugees gain vital work experience, build confidence, improve their English, cultural understanding and workplace skills.

Over the same period, each refugee is also supported directly by Breaking Barriers with bi-weekly advice from a mentor, advanced English language support and training workshops. This holistic approach gives the refugees the best possible preparation for going on to find permanent jobs.

There is an imperative for businesses to be taking this issue seriously. To not do so would be to ignore the potential value of opening up a new talent pipeline: there are currently 120,000 refuges in the UK and 20,000 more apply each year. But, this is not the only reason. There is an increasing focus on the practices of businesses when it comes to their ethical treatment of employees. From zero-hour contracts to executive pay to the legislation challenging businesses to report on how they are tackling modern slavery. These are all issues that move beyond the realms of CSR and into HR and executive board rooms. Of course, no one business can be expected to tackle these issues alone. There are many charity partners that can offer expertise on navigating these issues and ensuring positive outcomes for both refuges and businesses. We’re ready and waiting to help solve this issue.

This work is part of Forster Communications Modern Slavery Business to Society series.  Breaking Barriers is a UK charity which works with refugees to break barriers down and help them find meaningful employment. It offers a holistic service designed to make sure refugees can find meaningful employment that is commensurate with their skills, experience and qualifications. By doing so we help their successful settlement in, and integration with, local communities.