By Karl Flecker
Daniel is suffering from a repetitive strain injury. Working at Costco, stocking shelves, moving large boxes of everything he never eats, he jokes, is not what he planned to do with his European based training in logistics management. New to Canada, he realized a survival job was likely necessary until his credentials could be recognized. No one told him it would take so long, cost so much and despite his training and experience, still leave him without a job in his field. Manually moving foodstuffs has left him injured with no choice but to keep working or lose the income he needs to stay afloat.
Aishay can’t hide her depression. Her face no longer suggests she is an internationally trained doctor with years of experience in women’s health. Like many others, she found the credential recognition process lengthy, expensive and systemically biased against newcomers. Her savings ran low, leaving no choice but to take a job serving coffee at Tim’s. Adjusting to this new status in the Canadian job market hurts in ways she never imagined.
These are few of the stories of many newcomers to Canada, be they permanent residents, refugees or temporary migrant workers who increasingly are the face of our workforce. The last reliable census data from 2006 found that one in five Canadian workers is an immigrant. In the early 2000’s immigrants accounted for 80% of net labour growth. In about the same amount of time it takes to pay off a new car loan we will become 100% dependent on immigrants for growing the labour force.
With 47% of the workforce already at 65 or nearing that mark and a consistent downward trend line of natural births demographic change is dramatically affecting the composition of the labour force, according to Statistics Canada. Projections show that by 2030 or sooner, immigrants will be the principal source for growing the population.
Daniel and Aishay’s experiences unfortunately are typical for most immigrants. Those who arrived in the 1990’s and 2000’s and particularly those from racialized groups are more likely than Canadian born workers to end up in precarious, low-wage jobs. This includes, factory work, restaurants, hotels and retail stores. Many high skilled immigrants are more educated and experienced than their Canadian peers. But due to employers discomfort with international experience and qualifications, and/or having different levels of language proficiency and/or an absence of Canadian work experience (which is often nothing more than a proxy for xenophobia), immigrants endure the survival job to support themselves and their families.
Immigrant workers are amongst Canada’s most vulnerable when it comes to their health and safety on the job. Research findings from the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) point to three main reasons for this growing reality: not knowing their legal rights, working in jobs without experience or hazard specific training, and being unlikely to raise health and safety concerns for fear of losing the jobs that is keeping them afloat.
While these factors also apply to many Canadian born workers, particularly young workers, Dr. Agnieszka Kosny from IWH notes an important difference. Immigrants by virtue of their status as newcomers to Canada tend to find employment, particularly in the early years of their arrival that don’t mirror the jobs they left behind in terms of qualifications. “These workers end up doing jobs they have never done before, often involving manual, heavy and repetitive work and with little knowledge of the hazards, tools, or machinery associated with the work.” Research statistics paint an equally grim picture. Ninety percent of immigrant workplace injuries require medical attention, compared to 65% for other workers.
Newcomers are more likely than Canadian born workers to be employed in jobs with a high number of workplace health and safety hazards. Recent immigrants are also less likely to access compensation after a workplace injury. In addition, IWH researchers have found newcomers are often unfamiliar with workplace safety protections and the workplace injury claim and compensation processes.
Additionally, immigrant workers who are not proficient in English or French leads to mistakes being made on incident/injury forms, or misunderstandings with an adjudicator or employers sometimes making workers appear uncooperative. IWH has also documented systemic problems such as inconsistent or no interpretation services needed at the correct time in the workplace safety compensation process, which leads to further problems.
IWH researchers also found cases of workplace injuries involving immigrants where employers offered affected workers time off rather than file a workplace injury report. In other instances, employers misled immigrants about their rights or told the worker to return to work or be fired.
The necessity for a pay cheque leaves newcomers with few options but to keep working and limited options create risks.
A 2011 study (the first ever) examining the relationship between workplace injuries and education to job mismatch revealed that recent immigrants who have higher educational qualifications than required for the job are more than three times as likely to report a workplace injury as an immigrant with five years experience in the country who is not overqualified for their job. Another study explored how over-qualification amongst new immigrants affects general and mental health. Using data from a Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada administered by Statistics Canada showed that employed immigrants who worked in their field before coming to Canada were in good health upon arrival, but the impact of enduring the survival job situation resulted in declines in mental health with “persistent feelings of sadness, depression or loneliness.” IWH lead researcher on the study, Cynthia Chen points out that immigrants receive very little information when applying to come to Canada about what type of work they are likely to end up in and how long they may have to remain in jobs for which they are overqualified. Chen says, “our study shows that unmet job expectations increases the risk of decline in mental well-being over a relatively short time.”
Given that about half of recent immigrants end up working in jobs for which they are overqualified means not only is our economy underutilizing their talent, it puts people at risk of both physical workplace injury and deleterious mental well-being.
Changing this situation is possible, but will require innovation, collaboration and comprehensive policy improvements. A labour movement concerned with protecting all workers, and particularly newcomers who increasingly will make a major contribution to its own numbers needs to strengthen its advocacy for immigrant workers.
Unions need to forge links with immigrant and settlement agencies to assist in the development of accessible and multi-lingual information about employment standards, occupational health and safety rights and the workers compensation process. By working together unions can help add these components to immigrant and settlement agencies job search and language training classes that are offered to all newcomers preparing to enter the labour force. In return, unions get an early start at organizing these workers.
Governments also have increased obligations that could include:
Workplaces that have high concentrations of immigrant and other vulnerable workers must be rigorously targeted for health and safety inspections and employers must be obligated to implement effective injury prevention programs.
Greater protections are needed for injured workers who file claims, including multi-lingual access to legal information and access to alternative income support programs once injured.
Offering professional level interpretation services at the onset of claims and periodically throughout the process will improve workers understanding of their claim and outcomes.
WSIB services must be advertised and promoted effectively for newcomers in order to overcome known barriers. This requires data collection of the experiences of newcomers with the system. Currently there is no way to identify claimants as immigrants.
Credential recognition process particularly for skilled workers needs to become more efficient resulting in immigrants workers securing jobs in their fields and commensurate with their international experiences and training in a timely manner.
Without a comprehensive set of measures to better protect our workforce, with particular attention to vulnerable workers like Daniel and Aishay, we are putting people in harms way and missing out an opportunity to organize and support a growing demographic of the labour movement.
Karl Flecker is an immigrant employment consultant and has served as the National Director of Human Rights/Anti-Racism for the Canadian Labour Congress.