Underemployment and Low Wages Continue to Burden Immigrants

Refugees in particular struggle to find stable, suitable work.

By Rachel Sanders 1 Nov 2017 |

Rachel Sanders is a Vancouver journalist, editor and photographer. Her work has been broadcast on CBC Radio and has appeared in the Toronto Star, the Georgia Straight and the Victoria Times Colonist. Find her on Twitter here.

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Syrian dentist and immigrant Vicken Majarian: ‘I need someone to give me a chance.’

Vicken Majarian worked as a dentist in Aleppo, Syria. He and his family stayed for years after the war began, living without electricity or running water, with the constant fear of death. In December 2015, Majarian, his wife and their two children had the chance to move to Vancouver as privately sponsored refugees.

“We are happy that we are safe. We are in a good country,” he said during an interview with The Tyee.

But 22 months after their arrival, Majarian and his wife, formerly a civil engineering professor at the University of Aleppo, are still struggling to find stable, suitable employment. Majarian’s work with a hospital transfer company has allowed him to support his family. But he wants to build a career using his skills and education — and earn enough money to better cope with B.C.’s high cost of living.

He’d like to find work related to dentistry. But at this point, he’s willing to do just about anything.

“I need someone to give me a chance,” he said. “I’m ready, I’m open to everything.”

Majarian’s experience is familiar among Canadian immigrants — particularly among refugees — according to a recent Conference Board of Canada report. The report looked at wage data for immigrants who arrived between 1991 and 2014. It found that the average immigrant rarely achieves wage parity with average Canadian wages.

When all types of immigrants are included in the data — from skilled workers who arrive under federal programs, to applicants’ family members, to government and privately-sponsored refugees — immigrants earn just over 83 per cent of the average Canadian wage after 23 years in the country. Refugees have the lowest earnings, at 73 per cent of the average wage.

With the federal government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth recommending an increase in immigration numbers to 450,000 from the current annual target of 300,000, these labour market challenges could soon affect a larger number of people. The Conference Board of Canada report asserts that increased immigration would only be of economic benefit if labour market outcomes for newcomers improve.

Patrick MacKenzie is the CEO of the Immigrant Employment Council of BC, a not-for-profit organization focused on helping employers hire and retain skilled immigrants. In an interview, he said the current labour market shortage in British Columbia offers an opportunity for newcomers.

“By the province’s own numbers — their labour market 2025 outlook — they’re projecting a quarter million jobs will go unfilled if we don’t fill them with immigrants. That’s not even treading water, that’s losing ground,” he said.

MacKenzie said the under-use of immigrants’ skills has been a persistent problem in Canada for decades.

“I think as we move forward, as we look towards the future, it has the potential to become an even greater problem if we don’t really step back and say ‘OK, how is it that we’re going to make the best use of the skills of the people who come here,” he said.

Even when newcomers arrive through federal immigration programs for skilled workers, MacKenzie said, underemployment remains an issue.

“It’s important to remember that it’s not just about the economic immigrants who come,” he said. “It’s not just about the principle applicant, the skilled worker program. There are spouses and dependents, refugees, family class. They all bring skills.”

Although there’s been progress over the last 10 to 15 years, MacKenzie said there’s more work to be done. And there’s good reason to do it. He points to recent numbers demonstrating the economic benefits of a diverse workforce. A report this year from Ontario think tank the Centre for International Governance Innovation found that a one per cent increase in ethnocultural diversity in a workplace is associated with, on average, a 2.4 per cent increase in revenue.

“That’s a hard metric that you can look at and say it’s not just a feel-good thing to hire someone who’s come from overseas and give them that hand up. It’s actually really good for the bottom line to do it, too,“ said MacKenzie.

IEC-BC has developed resources to try to close the employment gap for skilled immigrants, including a job portal launched earlier this year.

Other organizations are also seeking creative ways to capitalize on the province’s labour shortage and improve employment prospects for newcomers. Last year, the BC Alliance for Manufacturing teamed up with MOSAIC — a charity in Greater Vancouver that serves immigrant, newcomer and refugee communities — to launch the Refugee Training and Employment Program, aimed at providing manufacturing skills training to newly arrived refugees.

MOSAIC is also working with the Business Association of Richmond to recruit refugees and other newcomers into the restaurant industry in that city, where there are an estimated 500 job vacancies this fall.

Sherman Chan, MOSAIC’s director of Family and Settlement Services, told The Tyee such jobs offer newcomers their first Canadian work experience, without which it’s hard to move into better paid work. Chan said policies in provinces such as Ontario aimed at preventing employers from discriminating based on lack of Canadian work experience can benefit newcomers.

“If B.C. could work on that it could be good,” he said.

Chan also said increasing workforce diversity is also part of the goal of the Richmond recruitment initiative.

“They’re looking at the shift in demographics, they also see that they really have to look at diversifying their clientele,” he said. “So they are looking at that as a longer term goal. Of course, the shorter term goal is to fill the positions.”

MOSAIC and the Business Association of Richmond hosted a networking dinner in Richmond in September to introduce restaurant employers to job seekers. A hiring fair is being planned for the end of November.

Vicken Majarian is grateful for the many resources that are available in B.C. to help refugees find employment. He has accessed many of them, and they’ve helped him gain Canadian work experience. But he’s ready to move out of entry-level work. He wants to build something in Canada that’s closer to the professional career he left behind in Syria.

“I want to give more than this,” he said. “The Canadian government gave us this opportunity. I want to give it back with my knowledge, with my education."

He’s not sure what path to take to get to the future he wants for himself and his family. Perhaps he’ll apply to a college to train as an optician. Some days are hard, but he’s trying to stay positive.

“At the end of the day, you don’t have another chance,” he said. “You have to look forward.”  [Tyee]

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