by Ranjit Bhaskar
Social mobility, access to opportunity and fairness are foundational principles of Canadian society.
Sold on these ideals, immigrants arrive ready to thrive. Instead most struggle to survive as they find themselves shut out of the formal economy.
Faced with such exclusion, many are forced to find precarious jobs in the informal economy, says the latest study on the poor labour market outcomes faced by new immigrants. The Shadow Economies
report released in Toronto on Tuesday attempts to throw more light on the dark underbelly of the city’s economy that is mostly invisible.
It puts a human face to an issue that is often talked in terms of the money it hides. Statistics Canada pegged the country's underground economy
at up to $36-billion as of 2008.
A collaborative effort by east-end Toronto community service groups, the report moves past anecdotal stories to document the stark realities newcomers face. “Ours is the first Canadian ground-level examination of the topic to take a look at the hard numbers of the informal economy,” said Diane Dyson, the report’s co-author. “What we found was worse than what we expected. Instead of resilience, we found poverty.”
Poverty, in all its complexity, is a central theme in the findings of this report funded by the Wellesley Institute. It builds on earlier studies which looked at the dynamics of growing segregation of neighbourhoods by income bracket and the social networks that connect or isolate residents from the wider community.
Based on a survey of 450 immigrants, the researchers found only three per cent of respondents were still working in the professional occupations they were in before coming here. Unemployment levels were very high with an average of 23 per cent compared to the Canadian average of three per cent. Only one-third of households reported being able to fully cover their household expenses on income earned through formal employment and 42 per cent of those engaged in informal economic activities earned less than $10,000 annually from them.
“If I knew the situation here ... I wouldn’t have applied to immigrate to Canada. I had a good job.
When they interviewed me at the visa office, I showed them my credentials, diplomas and my
experience. They were so nice. They never told me that they weren’t going to be recognized in
Canada,” said a respondent to the survey.
The report sits at the intersection of a number of complex issues: growing inequality, the spread of poverty and its concentration among immigrant and racialized populations, the changing shape of the labour force and the growth of employment precariousness, the debates over immigration classes (economic, family, refugee, temporary and undocumented), cultural diversity and immigrant settlement, the underground economy and tax avoidance.
Few ways out
“Immigrants who came through the front door, find they are not welcome and often settle for low wage ‘survival jobs’,” said Dyson. “Their Canadian dreams are quickly broken once they arrive.”
While the researchers expected discussions on credentialing processes, career ladders, and employment opportunities in their attempt to know how newcomers are coping, what they heard were stories of deadening isolation, unrestricted exploitation, exasperation, and dead ends with few ways of finding a bridge out of it.
Even their own ethnic communities in which they hope to find succour become entrapments rather than stepping stones. Consistent with other research, the study found that newcomers could not always rely on their ethnic groups for help in finding a good job. Those immigrants with fewer English-language skills could find needed supports, or, as easily, be taken advantage of within their own communities.
“As Canadians, we must be aware of the effects of these wider forces, especially on the most vulnerable and who have fewer choices. Even the wider protective effects of higher education do not shield against the structural discrimination that confines many immigrants to poor jobs,” said Dyson.
While the study did find some bright spots of mutual support, free enterprise, inspiration and new beginnings, the harsh reality is that many newcomers are working without the legislated protections which are intended to be universal minimum standards for all.
The study recommends that part of the solution will be to make explicit how regular employment is more profitable on both a personal and societal level and how one can claim one’s employment rights. However, a stronger underpinning has to be systemic enforcement, so that employers do not resort to an easy source of trouble-free, cheap labour and so that the most vulnerable among us are not left working without protection.