Immigrant workers suffer harder after layoffs: Report

Age, race biggest barriers to overcoming unemployment, precarious work

In June 2008, 2,400 workers at Progressive Moulded Products (PMP) in Vaughan, Ont., were laid off after the company went bankrupt. Ninety-seven per cent of the workforce were immigrants.

Five years later, these workers are facing unemployment and precarious work, and struggle with the challenge of "being immigrants all over again," according to a report by Ryerson University’s Centre for Labour Management Relations in Toronto, in collaboration with the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union.

"After more than half a lifetime of working in Canada, these workers find themselves faring worse than when they first arrived," said Winnie Ng, CAW-Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson and lead author of the study. "The economic crisis has ‘unsettled’ these long-term immigrant workers in a highly competitive labour market."

Two-thirds of the workers now work in precarious employment arrangements or are unemployed, found the study, which documented the experiences of 78 of the former PMP workers. Of those who are working in precarious employment, close to 40 per cent have been working on-call, casual work or other forms of temporary employment.

"Temp agencies have been instrumental in changing the employment landscape," said Cammie Peirce, national representative at CAW. "People actually work for an employer through a temp agency for years — that’s not temporary work."

More than three-quarters (77 per cent) of the workers are currently receiving wages that are worse than at PMP. Thirty-six per cent of male participants and 37 per cent of female participants reported a wage drop of $5 per hour or more, found An Immigrant All Over Again? Recession, Plant Closures and Older Racialized Immigrant Workers.

These study participants face a variety of challenges. Because many of them are in precarious employment arrangements, they do not have job security or benefits, which are huge stressors, said Peirce.

Of the survey respondents who are working, 59 per cent reported being anxious about losing their current employment and one-half (49 per cent) felt their health had worsened since the plant closure.

"Most people can relate to what it’s like to live on the edge, to feel that way. When life’s a struggle, you don’t do well. When money’s an issue, you don’t eat well — that all takes a toll," said Peirce.

More than one-half (52 per cent) of respondents said the uncertainty over their work schedule has interfered with their personal and family life. The health impacts of not having a decent, stable job that pays a living wage can spiral from one individual worker to his entire family, said

Patricia Landolt, research associate at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre.

"There’s the impact on their kids, they don’t feel they have healthy food for their children, they’re not taking enough time to care for their kids, and there’s stress in the household and conflicts between husbands and wives," she said.

Workers in precarious employment, especially foreign-trained workers, also face greater safety risks. They face actual job-site risks, such as being asked to perform tasks for which they have not received any training and use chemicals without protection, as well as scheduling risks because they are often working more than one job, said Landolt.

"Oftentimes people would go 15 days without work and then work 10 days at two jobs, 18 hours, so the risk of injury through exhaustion is high — because you don’t know how many hours you’re going to get next time and if you say ‘no’, you won’t be the one to get called back," she said. "And they end up working through their injury because they don’t have any sick days."

Close to 70 per cent of participants believe discrimination has been a barrier for them in getting work, found the report. The top barrier to getting work is age, according to 85 per cent of respondents. A significant proportion of PMP workers were over age 45 when they were laid off.

"When they first came here they were much younger, despite all the other systemic barriers there was a chance to compete. But now as they get older, you have age being added on to the other discriminatory barriers and then it becomes a house of cards — you push it and the whole thing collapses," said Ng.

One-half (51 per cent) of the study participants completed their Second Career training — a government of Ontario initiative that retrains laid-off workers. Of those, 25 per cent found employment in the new chosen career field while others have either returned to the manufacturing sector or are still looking for work.

The success rate in finding employment in the new career field diminished as the age of the participant progressed: 40 per cent in the 45 to 49 age group; 21 per cent in the 50 to 54 age group; and 18 per cent in the 55 plus age group.

To combat this, the report recommends a bridging program at the later part of the Second Career training as a placement or internship to help workers link up with potential employers.

"Employers need to recognize these workers have lived experience, portable skills, strong work ethics, and the skills they used for one particular workplace have transferability," said Ng. "They could be good employees if just given a chance."

The report also recommends a targeted wage subsidy program be in place to encourage employers to hire older workers.

"I think that’s a great idea," said Peirce. "It gives them an incentive to hire someone who is older and gives them the opportunity to give people some training on a new job without the same amount of costs. And I think employers need an incentive to hire older workers."

But wage subsidies have not worked in the past as they have led to "more free labour for employers" and no long-term
stable work for workers, said Landolt.

"Unless a requirement is enforced where you get cheap workers but then you need to hire this person full pay, full-time permanent, (wage subsidies) are a disaster," she said. "They’re just a government subsidy for employers and the guise of training for workers."

The second most common barrier to employment is race, according to 67 per cent of respondents, followed by language (40 per cent).

There is a lot of racism out there and race-based exclusion in the hiring process is a problem, said Landolt. For example, foreign workers are often excluded because they don’t have a Canadian accent or because they were hijabs.

"Things like that are going to be additional obstacles… and you’re entering a labour market that’s particularly precarious, so you put those together and there’s an increasing likelihood that newcomers are going to find short term, precarious work," said Landolt.

The federal and provincial governments should make it a policy and program priority to develop and implement a long-term industrial job strategy that will stimulate the creation and retention of "good jobs" for all, said the report. Employers can play a critical role in this by strategizing with government and labour, said Peirce.

"When we saw manufacturing jobs leave, we had not been replacing them with good jobs," she said. "Some of the new jobs are part-time jobs or low-paying, so they’re not quality jobs… we should be encouraging industries that will provide these kinds of good jobs and to do that we need to work with labour, employers and government."

The report says federal bankruptcy legislation needs to be revamped to ensure workers are the first in line for all payments owing including severance, termination pay and other compensation. A policy framework needs to be developed that holds employers accountable and ensures "full and fair compensation for laid-off workers," said the report.

"The workers are listed as the last on the creditors’ list, so you have the bank, landlord, the Canada Revenue Agency, the suppliers, so when they liquidate whatever assets they can generate, it goes to the ones at the top of the list first. But workers have been part of the productive forces that got the company going for all these years so it only makes sense (to put them at the top of the list)," said Ng.

The report also says there is a need to increase the minimum wage in Ontario to $14 per hour and establish a 40-hour workweek.

It’s important for employers to strive to reduce the number of people in temporary, precarious employment not just for the quality of life of workers, but for the company itself, said Ng.

"To generate productivity, you need a group who feel they’re in sync with the company’s goals, so if that’s the case, what kind of morale can you generate when the workplace keeps having succession of temporary workers?" she said.

Too many workers being employed by temp agencies also has an impact on the HR function within the company, said Ng.

"My sense is, in a way, HR will eventually become irrelevant… because the company is contracting out the HR work to temp agencies."

Latest stories