Diversity in the Workplace

Mr Joseph Assaf

Managing Director, Ethnic Communications Pty Ltd., Australia

On an average day in Australia half a million telephone calls are made to 150 overseas destinations and on Christmas Day seven million international telephone calls are made. The average week sees more than 2000 radio broadcast hours in more than 70 languages and over 400 hours of television in more than 12 languages. Over two and a half million copies of foreign language newspapers are printed each week in Australia in more than 30 languages.

These are just some of the most obvious examples of cultural diversity at work in Australia. The impact of this diversity is palpable; it touches every aspect of the way we live and work. Culturally diverse communities have existed throughout history, bio- diversity has had positive or negative effects depending on how it was managed. Properly managed, it provides social and economic benefits for the whole community; badly managed it can give rise to conflict and disintegration. In Australia, the good management of our diversities has given us enormous benefits and the potential for even greater advantages; it has made us a model of cultural global diversity.

The Roman and British empires flourished because they harnessed diversity; they appropriated the cultural and intellectual achievements of their subject peoples. Of course, the collapse of those empires was an inevitable consequence of their undemocratic character; however, it is significant that after independence, many ex-British colonies joined, and remain members of, the free association of the British Commonwealth. Clearly the advantages to be gained from pooling resources in a culturally-diverse alliance overcame memories of colonisation.

The advantages of creating a common bond out of diversity can be seen in the evolution of Europe since World War II. For centuries European history has been dominated by the struggles of different nations trying to assert dominion over each other. The advent of the European Economic Community, now the more closely allied European Union, brought about a gradual but profound change of attitudes. The different peoples of Europe are now convinced that union gives them shared strength. They share common goals and common wealth without sacrificing their separate cultural identities.

United, Europe makes a virtue of cultural diversity. Belgians still speak three different languages; Spain and Holland are still monarchies; Italy and France are still republics; and there is queue of countries knocking on the door. Europe's prosperity lies in a unity of purpose which is fortified by cultural diversity and which offers all the citizens of its member states equal access to wealth, education and the political process.

By becoming a well-managed diversity, Europe has re-created itself as a super-power. In contrast, the political and social convictions which governed the former Soviet Union failed to value the cultural diversity of its people. As the turmoil we are seeing today demonstrates, the USSR and its East European allies failed utterly in their attempts to create a common bond through insistence on cultural conformity. Instead, by restricting the expression of cultural diversity, they seem to have entrenched and quite possibly exacerbated cultural hostilities.

The unification of Europe's diversities has made it one of the strongest entities in the world but, in terms of global diversity, its reach is limited by its continental Europeanness. Europe has 15 member countries with different languages and cultures. In Australia we have more than 150 ethnic communities or, what I will call here today, cultural states.

The diversity of those 150 cultural states mirrors the cultural diversity of the globe and gives Australia a far greater potential than Europe. Together, Australia's diversities, its cultural states, constitute a unity, what I call the multicultural statemulticultural Australia.

Fifteen years ago I identified the emergence of the new cultural states; I saw them as global confederacies which transcend traditional political and tribal confines. The economic significance of these groups is now widely acknowledged as what Joel Kotkin calls the new global "economic tribes". As Kotkin points out, these "tribes"1 are not a new phenomenon; for centuries, the Jews have operated as an economic tribe, dispersed throughout the world; they preserved a strong cultural identity and used their community links to deal across the borders of their host countries. Kotkin draws a parallel between the historic economic role of the Jews and that of the new, "economic tribes": Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese, Koreans, Lebanese, Armenians and Palestinians, who have also been dispersed around the world; who also have strong cultural identities and powerful community ties; and who are vigorously entrepreneurial.

I prefer to describe them as global cultural communities. To my mind, the word "tribe" connotes exclusivity and, as I see it, the benefits deriving from the manifold achievements of these communities are felt globally, across national and cultural lines. They operate from every part of the world; they maintain energetic global business, artistic, and community networks. Their activities necessarily extend the cultural and economic perspectives of their host communities.

When one looks at the impact of these global cultural states, one can see that the communications revolution together with increased international mobility are changing the dynamics of the global community. The motive force behind international cultural and economic exchanges increasingly springs from the global cultural states which are, in economic, artistic and social terms, diffusing the boundaries of nation states. That diffusion can be seen in the economic, cultural and social impact of the 50 million overseas Chinese who are spread across the globe and who act as a global cultural state.

These global cultural states vary in size and they have settled in different numbers in different parts of the world. Latvians and Lithuanians, for example, have settled in only two or three countries, while Indians are widely dispersed. The reasons for the diasporas which gave rise to these global cultural states also vary; they occurred as a result of wars, occupations, persecution and economic hardship. The Lebanese global cultural state is one of the most scattered. With the Lebanon's history of protracted periods of political, economic and civic disturbance, contact and trade was often impossible for overseas Lebanese and they developed a long history of mobility and international trade. There are Lebanese cultural states in the Arabian Gulf, North and South America, Africa, Brazil, France, Britain and Australia. The Australian Lebanese cultural state is connected socially and economically with all the others, as well as with the Lebanon itself.

The 150 cultural states of Australia are all represented around the globe and are themselves a global diversity. In addition, we have the unique cultural states of the Aborigines and the Torres Straits Islanders as well as the largest cultural state, the Anglo-Celts. This combination of cultural and linguistic wealth makes Australia a model multicultural state and, therefore, singularly well-equipped to be the first host country for the first United Nations Conference on Global Cultural Diversity.

Like Europe, and in contrast with the former Soviet Union, Australia has pioneered the management of diversity for the common good. In Australia the individual in each of the 150 cultural states has equal access to education, wealth and status. Good management of diversity has brought social, economic, artistic and political progress; it has made our workplace very productive.

The benefits of this productive diversity in the workforce are felt on both the national and individual level. For years I have said that if you want to do business in Vietnam, you should start in Cabramatta, a Sydney suburb, where there is a large Vietnamese- Australian community. On a larger scale, it is known that two-thirds of all investment in mainland China is made by overseas Chinese including the Australian-Chinese cultural state, and their investments are a long-term investment for Australia.

Our cultural states are responsible for a substantial proportion of our export trade. A very high proportion of business migrants to Australia have come from Chinese-speaking countries and have established export businesses. Australia has benefited from a continual growth of export and business activity throughout its own region as well as in those countries where the Chinese global cultural state is represented. Chinese Australians routinely do business with their Chinese-speaking contacts in Los├┐Angeles and Canada as well as in China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong├┐Kong and Malaysia, and, at the same time, they are educating the world about Australia and advancing our global prospects. In the last few years we have seen Vietnamese Australians take Australian businesses into Vietnam and, similarly, Australian Russians and Hungarians are starting businesses in their countries of origin.

The capacity for cooperation and cross-fertilisation between communities at home and between Australia and the global community makes Australia a true multicultural state. We embody the cultural diversity of the globe; we are a culturally diverse but nonetheless cohesive society in which the different ethnic groups act as conduits through which we communicate with the globe and through which the world communicates with us.

The multicultural state is diversity at work for the common good. Cultural diversity confers social and economic dividends; it creates jobs and generates profits and, equally importantly, it promotes artistic exchange and connects us with the rest of the world. The three million Australians, 17 per cent of our population, who speak languages other than English also possess the cultural insights and global contacts which enable mutually productive communication across national and cultural boundaries.

When an Australian telephones family and friends in Armenia the benefit is felt in both countries; both share in the profit from the call and both learn more about each other. Knowledge and understanding breed the potential for mutually beneficial exchanges, be they artistic, economic or recreational. When an Australian Italian visits an Italian American cousin in New York there is a three-way cultural connection and it is almost certain that a measure of cultural or economic benefit will accrue even if it is simply a visit to Australia by the American branch of the family.

Each and every one of the people who has come to settle in Australia has brought with them inside knowledge of their countries of origin. They keep in touch with their families, thus, the seven million overseas telephone calls on Christmas Day. They have professional networks and business contacts. Thus, something like half of the 11 million overseas travellers who fly in and out of Australia every year are travelling for family or business reasons. That interaction builds compelling bonds between Australia and the rest of the world.

Immigration into Australia and the development of the multicultural state have transfigured our prospects because we have begun to put our diversity to work and this has given us diversity in the workplace. That diversity has been the single most important catalyst for innovation and creativity in our social, artistic and economic development.

During the last few decades Australia has pioneered diversity in communication. Our cultural diversity has required the development of diversity in our communication skills and these skills are used by both the public and private sectors to sell products and services, to inform the community about matters of public health and safety, and to research community attitudes. The same skills have the further potential for communicating with the world whether we are transmitting ideas, selling produce or exporting services.

Working within our cultural diversity, we are finding that the further we develop our communication skills, the more global opportunities open up to us. For example, the world spends about $15 billion annually on learning English. We train teachers to teach English as a second language in non-English speaking countries from which our cultural states have come. We are also finding that there is as much merit in our teachers working overseas to gain cultural and linguistic proficiency as there is in educating overseas students in Australia. The cultural diversity in our workplace has also given us a leading edge in the health treatment of people from different linguistic, cultural and dietary backgrounds. For decades our health system has been trained to treat the differing problems and needs of a globally diverse population. Diversity at work is also opening up a limitless range of trade and export opportunities. Over the decades, goods were manufactured to meet the dietary and cultural needs of the local ethnic markets; many of those products are now being exported back to their countries of origin.

In his explication of the new "economic tribes", Joel Kotkin limits their effects to the economic arena and also limits the number of "tribes"2. My view is that the number of cultural states in Australia, as I prefer to call them, is almost 150. When we add the benefits brought by Kotkin's "tribes" to each of our 150 cultural states, and we add to those the social, artistic and political benefits brought by all our people, we end up with a diversity of benefits and a productivity as diverse as our own workforce, a workforce with the power to communicate globally, a workforce with skills which can generate on one single day, seven million telephone calls across the world to more than 150 destinations in almost 100 languages.

Diversity in the workplace is our most valuable resource. It keeps us in constant touch with the world. Indeed, our greatest productive capacity is a workforce that is equipped with the cultural diversity of the globe.

Last updated: