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Grollo Ruzzene Fndtn

Dr. Dino Ruzzene - Dr. Simone Battiston

Italian-Australians: From Migrant Workers to
Upwardly Mobile Middle Class

A Study of occupational mobility among Australian of Italian background
1971 - 2001

Research Paper


Italian Australian Institute
La Trobe University, Melbourne

THE BOOK: Are today's Italian-Australians a component of the upwardly mobile middle class?  If so, can their occupational positioning and mobility from labour-intensive to clerical, professional and managerial jobs be a sign of their class transformation?  Moreover, what similarities and differences are there between first- and second-generation Italian-Australians (see Glossary) in terms of demographic and job patterns?  What occupational changes have occurred among Italian-Australians employed in industry sectors that have traditionally had a high Italian- background representation, such as the manufacturing and building and construction industries?

Given that most people in Australian often project their class through their occupation, data presented in this paper supports a view that Italian-Australians can arguably be now considered an upwardly socially mobile class, largely middle class.

This study outlines historic, demographic and employment trends within the so-called Italian community in Australia (first and following generations of Italian-Australians, comprising a population of approximately 800,000 and a workforce of approximately 357,000 in 2001).  It maps and provides an analysis of the demographic changes and job progressions of Australians of Italian background (see Glossary), respectively over the periods 1947-2001 and 1971-2001, and it takes us from rural to urban industrialised environments and from low-paid, blue-collar jobs to more high-status white-collar positions.

This project presents findings of the first part of a National Research Project on Italian Australians which aims at establishing a socio-economic profile of Italian Australians at the beginning of the new millennium in Australia.  Research on establishing the status of Italians in Australia is one of a number of recommendations from the 'In search of the Italian Australian into the New Millennium' IAI Conference held in Melbourne in May 2000 (I.A.I. 2000: xxi).  This research project is in response to the Conference and necessary in order to objectively record a part of history that has helped shape Australia into a modern democracy of international standing.

Italian Australian cultural and economic contribution to Australia society is substantial.  Paid work performed by Italians in Australia since Second World War is renowned.  A large number of Italians were employed in the Snowy Mountain Hydro Electric Scheme, in the underground tunnel's in Sydney and Melbourne, in the construction of the Rialto Twin Towers in Melbourne, and on the production assembly lines at both Ford and General Motors Holden.  Italian Australian workers involved in these projects often talk and recount their experiences with a great sense of achievement and pride.  Along with their well-known cuisine, Italians are now part of the Australian ethos and way of life.

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Italian Australian economic and cultural contribution to Australian society is integral to national heritage, a concept that is valued by society and is Government policy.  This research project is in response to government policy directions.

The research project focus is on paid work patterns of Italian Australians and attempts to prove that paid work is the vehicle for social and economic mobility within Australian contemporary class structure.

Decade of significant economic and cultural change in Post Second World War Australia saw Italian-Australians increasingly move upward in terms of the types of work performed.  In the period comprised between the 1940s and the 1960s, Italian-Australians were predominantly employed to do routine, manual work in the manufacturing, building, agriculture, and niche food services in the 1970s, Italian-Australians were increasingly employed in white-collar and small business positions, a development that continued in the 1980s and beyond, when Italian-Australians increased their participation in white-collar and professional employment.

According to the 2001 Census, Italian-Australians (see Glossary) constituted 4.2% of the overall Australian population, making them the largest non-English-speaking background (NESB) group within Australian society.  Italian-Australian contribution to the Australian labour force and economy has been widely acknowledged by academics and scholars, (e.g. Lever-Tracy and Quinlan 1988: passim).  However, up until now a comprehensive statistical and historical study on pre- and post- war demographic and employment trends with regard to Italian-Australians has not been undertaken.

In some sense the history of Italian immigration can be viewed primarily as a history of the contribution of Italian labour to the host societies.  In a recently published pictorial history of Italians abroad (Rak 2001), work, its representation, and the self-representation of Italians as workers are some of the favourite subjects.  Work is an important identity hallmark for Italian migrants overseas, as Rak argues: work is where the Italian identity is ultimately 'conserved, defended and transmitted' (ibid.: 11).

The need to find better employment opportunities was the factor inducing thousands of Italians to emigrate from their homeland after Second World War.  When riots broke out at the Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre in July 1952, migrants from Italy and their families, whose arrival had been financially assisted and who were indebted to the Commonwealth, shouted to the authorities, 'work or repatriation!' - frustrated as they were by the broken promise of immediate employment.

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Since the end of Second World War, Italian-Australians have undoubtedly made a significant cultural impact on and economic contribution to Australian society and the Australian economy.  This research report, largely based on a set of customised ABS Census data spanning the time from 1971 to 2001, aims to outline a comprehensive, nation-wise occupational profile of employed Australians of Italian background aged 15 years and over.

With regard to Italians in the Australian labour force, the last three decades of the twentieth century have seen a significant upward trend, which has arguably become the vehicle for social and economic mobility within contemporary Australian class structure.  As was the case for people from other ethnic groups emerging during the booming post-war period, work has enabled Italians to engage in Australian society and gain economic security.  Through work Italians have achieved social status, have increased their participation in decision making processes, and have entered institutions  of law, politics, religion, the arts, and other areas of human endeavour in Australia.

Yet Particular periods of significant economic and cultural change in Australian society may have dramatically influenced the work trends of Italians in Australia, such as the decades such as the 1950s, the 1970s and the 1990s.

The labour market position of Italian-Australians can be determined by a set of data, some of which are currently available and some of which are not.  However, it can be argued that paid work and upward career mobility is the most significant contributing factor to the current standing of Italian-Australians in Australian society.


The Authors: Dr. Dino Ruzzene is a foundation research fellow at the Italian Australian Institute.  Dino was born in Italy and migrated to Australia with his parents, brothers and sisters in 1955.  Over this period he has worked in both private and public sector employment for in excess of 40 years.  In addition to extensive industrial experience in manufacturing and education sectors, Dino has completed studies of education at Masters and Doctoral levels.  Previous research includes Factors in Retraining of Displaced Immigrant Workers and Higher education policy reforms in Australia 1970-2000 period.

Dr. Simone Battiston graduated with distinction in history at Trieste University, Italy, in 1999.  He migrated to Australia in 2000.  He completed his doctorate on the history and collective memory of the Italian migrant workers organisation FILEF in 1970s Melbourne.  His research interests include the socio-economic and political contribution of Italian migrants to post war Australia, Italian-Australian life histories, ethnic community politics and associational life, interculturalism and transnationalism.

The Publisher:  The Italian Australian Institute (I.A.I.) is a non-profit organisation, supported by the co-operation between the Grollo-Ruzzene Foundation and La Trobe University.  Its charter states that its main aim is to research and study every aspect of the Italian presence in Australia.

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