Syrian refugees welcomed by employers

Cultural competency training key to successful integration

With tens of thousands of refugees expected to arrive in Canada from Syria, businesses are preparing for an influx of potential employees.

As many as 3,000 new arrivals are anticipated in Winnipeg alone. While skilled tradespeople and construction workers are in particular demand, the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce is working to connect any and all employers with the resources they need to create job opportunities. 

“The number one issue facing businesses in these tough economic times is the skills-gap issue,” said David Angus, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. 

“Our employers need to look at every available talent pool they can find and develop strategies around them.” 

There is a lot of mystery surrounding the skill-set, language levels and credentials of these individuals, said Angus. As a result, it’s crucial employers do their research before attempting to bring on any new workers. 

“It’s important for businesses to know what resources are on the ground that they can access that would provide greater insight and opportunity to connect with potential employees,” he said. 

Manitoba Start, which helps newcomers to Canada, provides a paid work experience program, for example. The program finances eight weeks of employment for a refugee within a company. This lowers the risk for smaller organizations to onboard and train new employees. Ideally, said Angus, the workers would be hired on permanently. 

Cultural concerns
While much of the focus is on the skill sets of these potential employees, employers should be conscious of the training they or existing workers may need to successfully integrate these new workers, said Angus. 

“Cultural training is important for organizations so that they can provide an environment that is more conducive to newcomers feeling comfortable,” he said.

“That’s often a part that’s overlooked but it’s critically important. There’s some work to do in companies to make sure they are creating the kind of environment where you can accept diversity and respect different cultures. We can’t overlook the value of that kind of training.” 

A focus on cultural training is paramount, said Andrew Stevens, assistant professor in the University of Regina’s faculty of business administration. The cultural landscape in the province has changed significantly in the past decade, and these changes can create new opportunities for discrimination.

“All of a sudden, organizations needed to be aware of diversity in the workplace and what that might look like. This could be an environment in which there is potential for new forms of racism and discrimination to manifest themselves between supervisors and employees or amongst the employees themselves,” he said.

“There needs to be a focus here on anti-racism, anti-harassment and at looking at this as part of occupational health and safety, which — ultimately — is the duty and responsibility of an employer.” 

Open channels of dialogue and information-sharing — as well as an effort to empathize and understand — are crucial in building successful employment relationships, said Stevens.

Employers can’t assume new employees will be familiar with or understand documents such as collective agreements, company policies or benefits packages. Training on these issues should be very hands-on, he said. 

“Employers also need to know about a variety of comprehensive challenges and issues that might face these refugees.” 

Businesses need to be prepared to train employees on aspects of the workplace many Canadians take for granted, said Levon Afeyan, owner of the Montreal-based manufacturing business Seatply, which employs more than a dozen refugees, with some from Syria. 

“They’re really not aware of any of the rules,” he said. “Sometimes you have to explain to them what a break is and why we take lunch breaks. We try to talk to them about carpooling to come to work, and we try to bring to their attention to things like working an evening shift so they can go to school in the morning.”

It’s also important to discuss their lives outside work, said Afeyan. 

“We try to sit down with them, give them some direction and encouragement to stay and work and adapt to this new lifestyle,” he said. “It’s very important for employers to take these steps. And I think it’s important that we do this sooner rather than later. It’s important because these people need to have a good first experience. Not a perfect one, but a good first experience.”

New Canadians and refugees in particular tend to be the most exploited in societies and in workplaces, said Stevens.

“It’s important that employers learn about labour law and about communicating labour law, employment standards and occupational health and safety standards to employees,” he said. “People need to be vigilant of the rights of these workers.” 

The recent influx of refugees has significantly increased public awareness about these issues, according to Margaret Eaton, executive director of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC). 

“The phone is ringing off the hook here, so we really want to take advantage of this opportunity to engage with employers on this issue of immigrants and refugees and we hope that this kind of outpouring of affection and interest for refugees will be spilled over into all immigrant communities, that people will see the real benefit of hiring immigrants and working with them to better our city, our economy and our country.” 

Cultural competency training is about understanding people are different and may react differently in a situation, she said.

“In some cultures, people stand closer than in other cultures. Understanding those funny, subtle differences when you bring different cultures together is necessary when you’re trying to create an atmosphere within your workplace that’s inclusive,” she said. 

“It’s changing people’s mindsets to be more open and understanding about those differences and also then realizing that difference is the thing that sparks creativity and productivity.” 

Collaboration between employers, agencies, associations, trade unions and communities is necessary to connect businesses with this emerging talent pool and also to provide both employers and employees with the supports they need, said Eaton.

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