Home > Publications > Research > The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey > Part 3: Settlement > The need for independence: Experiences of finding employment

The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey Part 3: Settlement


‘I don’t want to depend on others, I want to stand on my own two feet. It’s very important to have a job as soon as you arrive.’ (Adult female)


Gaining employment is an important element in the resettlement process. However, there is widespread agreement and evidence to show that obtaining appropriate and meaningful work for refugees is difficult (Department of Labour, 2004). As opposed to migrants, refugees are not selected to enter New Zealand based on their ability to fulfil certain requirements (for example; English language, skills, age). In addition, refugees do not have the same luxury as migrants generally to research destination countries, and prepare accordingly (Connor, 2010). As a result, refugees face several barriers to gaining employment such as; a lack of New Zealand work experience, a lack of understanding from employers, a lack of New Zealand qualifications and limited English (Department of Labour, 2004).

The former Bhutanese refugees interviewed for the community phase of this research had had only limited opportunities for employment after arriving in the refugee camps of Nepal 18 years earlier. For those who fled Bhutan, many had been farmers, one a priest, one worked for government and one had been a mechanic. Most of those interviewed reported having no paid employment since arriving in the camps. Of those who had gained employment, this was most often within the schools in the camps, either as administrators or teachers. Most of the women, reported being ‘housewives’.

Pre-departure expectations

Given the limited opportunities for employment within camps in Nepal, the potential to gain meaningful employment in New Zealand was a primary motivating factor in the decision to apply for third-country resettlement. For the young and educated in particular, the confinement to camps and the lack of legal employment opportunities was increasingly demoralising and frustrating.

The interviews conducted in Nepal showed that most of those interviewed expected to be working in paid employment in New Zealand and thought that employment opportunities lacking in camps in Nepal would be readily available in New Zealand. As one man relayed ‘after arriving there I guess my life will be better than this life, because I will be working’. Another man was optimistic about his future prospects saying ‘[I] see myself in my dream job to make a good future through settlement process’.

Many expected that a job would be provided for them by the Government of New Zealand, ‘which job will I be benefited?’ asked one woman. However, the type of work the Bhutanese thought they would be provided with differed. Some indicated that they would have to accept whatever job was provided to them by the New Zealand Government. As one middle-aged male said ‘I am totally dependent on government organisation so I will accept the work that is given to me’. For others, there was an expectation that the government would find them suitable work related to their skills and expertise: ‘I want to work according to qualifications and education’.>

Whilst it was generally expected that work would be readily obtainable in New Zealand, there was little understanding of the type of work/jobs that might be available in a modern Western society. Many expected that they would be working in similar roles to the ones available to them in Bhutan. As one man said he did not want to work ‘in the black market’. Some women interviewed thought that they would be able to get work ‘tailoring and weaving’. For these people their skills, whilst valuable, are not necessarily easily transferable to the types of jobs that might be available in New Zealand. However, some understood that they might need to re-train or be up-skilled in order to obtain employment in New Zealand.

The search for employment in New Zealand

After their first year in New Zealand, those who had completed some English language courses, and had a reasonable level of English language proficiency began to search for employment. At the time of interviews, only 2 out of the 20 people interviewed had been successful in gaining regular employment in part-time jobs for 6 and 12 hours per week. One other interviewee had worked full time for 2 months doing seasonal work and had also found casual work fixing computers.

The low rate of employment was not for lack of trying. All of those interviewed, who were not mothers of small children, expressed their desire to find work. Many had tried to find jobs at supermarkets with no success. Others who were enrolled in vocational training were hoping that they would be able to find work through this channel. One mother had put her name down at local kindergartens for cleaning work, and registered her interest to work with her social worker to no avail:

I have given my name to all the local kindys to work as a cleaner if they need someone but no one has contacted me yet. I’ve also given my name to my social worker to say I am keen to work. (Adult female)

Having heard of labour shortages others had contacted local orchards about the prospect of seasonal work:

Now is the berry season – we have given our phone number in case there is work. Farmers say they currently have the staff they need – they haven’t contacted us. (Middle-aged male)

Difficulties experienced

Arriving into New Zealand in 2009, at the height of the global economic recession has meant that gaining employment has been even more difficult for this group due to an overall lack of jobs in the community. Some of the interviewees mentioned that they cannot compete with locals who are applying for the same jobs. For others, gaining employment was more a matter of luck as one woman said ‘you have to have luck to find a job. Not only Bhutanese but local people say the same thing’. Other barriers to gaining employment that were commonly identified were a lack of English language, a lack of relevant work experience and transport problems.

As a highly motivated group who had been optimistic about their chances of finding employment prior to arrival, the lack of progress in gaining employment was starting to cause frustration amongst interviewees. The lack of employment was the biggest cause of worry and stress at the time of interviews. This is a group who many times mentioned that they do not want to remain ‘idle’ that they are used to working hard, and are ready and willing to contribute to New Zealand. They are aware of the difficulties facing refugees, and do not want to follow a similar pattern, as one man said ‘when we ask about finding a job they say there are people who have been here 10 years who don’t have a job’. As a group, the Bhutanese do not want to have to rely on a benefit. For them gaining employment is of upmost importance:

It [a job] is very important – you become more independent. (Adult male)

It’s important to find work - if you work you can get $400 to $500 a week when the benefit is only $200. (Adult male)

Very important [to find work] – you have to survive on the money you receive so it’s hard. (Adult female)

The importance and motivation to gain employment was also evidenced in the education many had chosen, which predominantly was selected with the primary goal that the course would help them to gain meaningful employment. However, as discussed, where this group got this information from, and whether or not the courses selected will help to gain employment is yet to be determined. In addition, the Bhutanese had limited knowledge of the ways in which to find a job in New Zealand particularly outside of formal channels and relied on putting their name down with a potential employer or leaving them with a phone number.

Help needed to find a job

Before departing for New Zealand, many interviewees expressed an optimism or belief that the Government of New Zealand would help them to find a job, or would provide a job on arrival to the community. This is unsurprising given the reliance on others for the past 18 years within the refugee camps. Given the level of difficulty experienced gaining employment, interviewees were asked what help they thought they needed to find a job. By and large this group wanted help with the entire process.

Information sharing

Firstly they felt that they needed to have someone tell them about vacancies. As one young woman said there needed to be ‘some kind of job search so everyone has central access to information’. She felt like someone would spot a job and take it and there was no chance for everyone else to apply for it. It became apparent that in some cases the availability of certain positions were being communicated to a select group of people, and that some who might be suited to a position were being excluded from the process.

Brokering of positions

This is a group that felt they needed a lot of support in finding work. Most often interviewees wanted to be told where jobs were available, when and how to apply for positions and help with a CV and references. There was little understanding of the actual process involved in applying for a job, and ways in which they could independently search for work. For those that had gained work, this was through vocational training agencies, who informed them of a position, helped them fill out the application form, and organised an interview. This is the kind of help/level of support that this group has identified they will need in order to find paid work.

Up-skilling and vocational training

Many of the men interviewed identified that they ‘know how to work’; they just needed assistance up-skilling. A common theme to emerge amongst this group, particularly those based in Palmerston North and Nelson, was that there was an absence of vocational training courses that would help to provide the practical and technical skills needed to gain employment. In addition, some noted that they would be willing and able to do volunteer work in order to up-skill themselves and gain valuable New Zealand work experience and therefore increase their chances of gaining employment:

Make job funding more of a priority – things like technical and practical work – building, bus driving, and car mechanic. (Adult female)

They [the government] need to organise training courses to help people find a job. (Adult female)

I am worried about getting a job, if the government have volunteer job training this would help. (Middle-aged male)

Utilisation of skills

Many of the interviewees who fled Bhutan came from subsistence farming backgrounds. It was often mentioned by middle-aged males in particular that they were ready and willing to do hard work all they needed was the opportunity. Several men interviewed in different regions talked about the potential to work with local farmers and market gardeners. They identified that if they were given this opportunity that farmers would be guaranteed stable, reliable workers. As one man said:

Because Bhutanese are well experienced in farm related work – we are keen to do that. If the farming sector would tell us what they need we could do this work. It needs coordination between the Bhutanese community, Refugee Services and the farming community. (Middle-aged male)

Living on a benefit

Due to the lack of employment, the main source of income for all of those interviewed was some form of benefit or for those studying full-time a student allowance. Everyone was appreciative of the government for this support, and identified that compared to other resettlement countries, usually the United States, that those who came to New Zealand were well looked after. However, being on a benefit long-term did not sit well for many. They did not want to have to rely on others, and were desperate after 18 years to be independent. As one man said ‘Bhutanese people don’t want to stay on a benefit’. Another echoed this: ‘I don’t feel happy just to be getting the benefit. I’m used to working. I would prefer to work’. In addition, they wanted to contribute in a positive way to a country that had given them a chance at a better life.

This is a group that did not want to complain about the amount of money they were receiving. One woman relayed a sentiment expressed by many; ‘the allowance and the benefit we get from the government we’re surviving on that. We’re not poor, but we’re surviving and we’re happy with that’. However, for many, day-to-day living was a struggle and problems with benefits due to communication difficulties and misunderstandings had occurred.

Financial difficulties experienced

Arriving during a recession when price increases were experienced across many different areas, meant that an increased pressure on finances was felt. The comments below were relayed time and time again:

We have to go to school daily and the bus fare is going to increase from $5 to $6. I have a Metro Card but it is going up. All the prices are going up but the benefit is not going up. (Adult female)

All the prices are going up, telephone etc. But the benefit doesn’t go up. Main worry is that the government will support me till I can get my own living. Once I can earn I’ll pay tax and things will cost more again but it will be OK. (Adult male)

Now the house rent has gone up $16 a week but the benefit hasn’t increased. (Adult female)

We’re surviving on a government benefit, but fees from kindy have increased – that’s hard especially as grocery prices have gone up too. (Middle-aged male)

It’s hard when the kids are small and hard to survive on the benefit. The demand for food/clothes is hard to meet. (Adult female)

Problems experienced

Whilst many said they had not experienced any problems with their benefit and had received regular payments, a few were not so lucky. The difficulty of communication and an unfamiliar system for some meant that problems experienced were not easily understood or fixed. As one middle-aged man said ‘on several occasions the benefit has stopped and we don’t know why and we can’t communicate with them. They sent us a letter saying they were stopping the benefit but we didn’t understand it ... But when you ring them up on the number all you get is the music’.

Pre-departure expectations versus on-arrival realities

Prior to departing Nepal there was the expectation that life in New Zealand would be better than in Nepal, and this was primarily because interviewees thought that they would be working in meaningful employment. This impression may have been as a result of views expressed by others within the refugee camps. For example, in a study completed by the UNHCR on the resettlement of Bhutanese refugees in the United States it was found that refugees had been told whilst in the camps that they would be given a job, and shown video footage of the type of work that could be expected (Shrestha, 2011).

The Bhutanese in this study were minimally prepared for the realities of the New Zealand labour market. With limited knowledge of New Zealand prior to departure, on arrival they have not known what jobs are available in New Zealand, and more importantly are unaware of where to look for work, how to apply for a job and prepare a curriculum vitae and covering letter. The reality that some skills are not readily transferable to the New Zealand workforce and the necessity to have a high level of English language could not have been anticipated by the Bhutanese. With such high expectations prior to departing Nepal, the reality that jobs are not abundant in New Zealand, and that they are not provided by the government has been a disappointment for many of those interviewed. Frustration and disillusionment were commonly expressed during the community interviews as a result.


Employment is the number one priority and unemployment a cause of stress for the Bhutanese interviewed. As a group they are extremely motivated to obtain employment, and are actively looking for employment and/or engaged in activities to help them with this. For those without a high level of English language there is an understanding that this will need to be improved before employment can be obtained. Given the scarcity of employment opportunities it is going to be important that when jobs do come up through community channels that these are widely circulated, and equal opportunity is given to the Bhutanese to apply for the position.

Overall there is a risk that this group will become disillusioned and frustrated with their lack of employment and their reliance on the government for their day-to-day living. Whilst it is unknown what the future will hold for this group in terms of employment, interviews clearly showed that they are driven and determined to find jobs and contribute positively to New Zealand.