Wasting B.C.'s Skilled Immigrant Workers

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Jennifer Chun, UBC Sociology | BCBusiness
Image by: Brian Howell
UBC professor of sociology Jennifer Chun.

B.C.'s hard-working immigrants are arriving only to toil in low-wage survival jobs, abandoning their career aspirations. So how do we stop the cycle?

Canada is in desperate need of more highly skilled, educated immigrants. At least that’s what we’re told by studies such as the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Talent Risk Report. Despite current concerns about persistently high unemployment, the study estimates that current immigration and birth rates in Canada will not be enough to replace retiring workers, leading to a severe talent shortage by 2030.


The good news is that Canada does better than most when it comes to attracting foreign talent. Foreign-born workers with university education make up 10 per cent of Canada’s workforce, compared to two per cent in Europe and 4.5 per cent in the U.S. The bad news is that much of this talent is going to waste in dead-end, low-wage jobs. 


Stories about foreign-trained doctors driving cabs are legendary, and a December 2011 UBC study titled Immigrants and Low-Paid Work confirms they are more than the stuff of urban myth. Researchers gathered 44 immigrants into four panel discussions in the Vancouver area, starting in the summer of 2010, and gave them free rein to tell their stories. One of the startling discoveries is just how easy it is for a skilled person to get trapped in a cycle of low-wage work that essentially kills their career aspirations.


For instance, the report includes the story of Robert, who worked for 13 years as an electrician in the shipbuilding industry in the Philippines before bringing his family to Canada in 2010. He failed time and again to find work in his field, and gradually watched his life savings dwindle to nothing. He abandoned his career to work as a janitor.


Then there’s Rocio, a former financial controller from Bolivia whose only barrier to working in his chosen field was improving his English. Forced to take low-wage work to support his family, he had no time to take any classes. He also gave up on pursuing his career of choice.


Yoyo Xu, a 35-year-old mother of two in Vancouver, tells BCBusiness that her Chinese-immigrant friends, many of whom worked office jobs before immigrating, are now working as babysitters or cleaners, or have found jobs in factories, bakeries and canneries. Xu herself worked in an office in her native China as a database manager before moving to Canada to join her new husband nine years ago. Soon after she arrived she started taking ESL courses and found part-time work as a quality checker in a Vancouver garment factory, earning $8 an hour. Taking time off to give birth to two sons, she has also worked as a part-time grocery-store cashier, for $8.50 an hour. Today her family is getting by, she says, but there’s never much money left over. “Everything is getting expensive,” Xu says. “The tax is getting higher, the transportation and the groceries, but the work pay does not get raised very much.”


One of the UBC report’s authors, UBC sociology professor Jennifer Chun, started this research in the hope that stories from real immigrants would attract some much-needed attention to this long-standing problem. She reports that many of the immigrants who participated in the study said they were encouraged to come here because of their education and skills, the implicit message being that they were needed and that they’d have a chance to work and contribute. They did not expect to have to abandon their careers and work menial survival jobs with the vague hope that the future might be better for their children. “So many of them were educated and had professional work experience before they came to Canada,” Chun says. “But at some point they had all given up . . .
because they had become stuck in the cycle of low-paid work.”


Not only are skilled immigrants forced into a cycle of low-paying jobs, but the gap between immigrant pay and that of the rest of the population is growing. In the ’60s and ’70s, new immigrants who came to Canada also started off earning less than the Canadian-born, but they’d usually catch up within 10 years or so, explains Daniel Hiebert, a professor of geography at UBC and the co-director of Metropolis B.C., an immigration-focused research group. But since then, not only are the starting earnings of recent immigrants dropping, but so is the rate at which those earnings increase. Immigrants who arrived between 1976 and 1980 earned 25 per cent less than the Canadian-born, while those who arrived between 1991 and 1995 earned 38 per cent less.


The cycle of immigrant under-employment continues to deepen despite the concerted efforts of Canada’s immigration system to attract the best and brightest. Forty-two per cent of immigrants arriving in 2006 had a university degree, according to a 2011 study by the Royal Bank of Canada. That’s more than double the percentage of Canadians with degrees, and three times the percentage of immigrants who arrived in 1981. 


In B.C. especially, employment is not a guarantee of escaping financial hardship. B.C. has Canada’s highest proportion of children living in what Statistics Canada defines as “low income.” Immigrant families are three times more likely to fall into this category than those born in Canada. Low-income families in B.C. are the most likely to have at least one parent who works full-year and full-time, indicating that poverty in this province is not necessarily a matter of unemployment, but of low wages.



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