New Canadians and the Labour Market — Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario.

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November 22, 2012 by Ceris Ontario

 “Those in insecure employment, even when they are in middle income households, have more trouble making ends meet, find it more of a challenge to pay for children’s school expenses and after-school activities, and are less likely to have close friends. Some delay forming households or starting a family.”

(Photo by Isaac Coplan, 2012)


How do recent immigrants to Canada find work? How does their work affect household wellbeing? How does it affect community participation?  These are some of the questions that the Poverty and Precarious Employment in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) research group are exploring.  PEPSO is a coalition of community and university researchers.  We are working on a number of projects including a survey of over 4,000 individuals. We have interviewed nearly 100 individuals working in insecure jobs.

Our focus is the overall experience of workers in the GTA-Hamilton labour market.  A number of the individuals surveyed and interviewed were recent immigrants to Canada.  It will not come as a surprise that one of the findings is that new immigrants almost always enter the labour market via temporary and insecure employment.  Three-quarters of immigrants who arrived in Canada in the last five years were working in insecure jobs at the time of the survey.  This means they have less control over work schedules, less certainty about future employment, and less voice regarding conditions at work. They are also less likely to have employment benefits like a supplementary drug plan or a pension.

How does this type of employment affect household wellbeing and levels of community participation?  Here the findings are of some concern.  Insecure employment not only shapes life at work, but it also influences relations beyond the workplace.  Those in insecure employment, even when they are in middle income households, have more trouble making ends meet, find it more of a challenge to pay for children’s school expenses and after-school activities, and are less likely to have close friends.  Some delay forming households or starting a family.

The stories we heard during our interviews help us move beyond numbers to appreciate how insecure employment affects household wellbeing.  A medical doctor who had recently arrived in Toronto from India spoke of his inability to find work that would allow him to contribute to Canadian society. He felt betrayed by officials who had encouraged him to come to Canada claiming he had been “lured” to immigrate simply to live in poverty.  While he remained hopeful of better times ahead, his son was not coping as well and was suffering from depression.   A young woman from Australia with a degree in planning ended up in various temporary jobs. She lives in shared accommodation with a number of other people. Some of her friends have ended up in places with bed bugs and she is concerned that this might happen where she is living.   Making friends was a challenge.  She told us:

If you come to this country and you don’t meet a lot of people at the beginning and you don’t have a lot of money or steady income then I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people just sit around and do nothing. Because if you can’t afford to go out, it’s hard to meet people. Toronto is relatively a hard city to break into. . . .  I’ve been here in Toronto a year and a half and to be honest, after a year, I finally was starting to make a lot of friends from Canada rather than just in my travel group of friends.

Accessing health care was also a challenge:

I’ll put off things to the last minute which I think health wise is not a good idea. I mean, I know the women’s clinics are always free and I’ll go there. . . . If I got sick, I mean if I got desperate, I would go to the doctors. . . . Most people would go as soon as something starts happening right? You get a sore throat and it really hurts, you go the doctor they give you antibiotics or whatever. Whereas I know my friends and I we’ll leave it to the last minute until we get really sick.

A young man from India working in the IT sector found a job, but it was insecure and his pay depended on how much he sold. He was very concerned about his economic insecurity and when we asked about paying his mortgage he told us how difficult it could be:

Yeah the income is always variable you are never sure what is going to happen, in the past when I was out a job for a couple of months it was the most scary thing to happen in my life. . . Somehow I managed to pay them [mortgage and utilities] through my friends and relatives, I borrowed privately to ensure that my credit wouldn’t be effected. I did all those things.  [It was] stressful, you are always on the edge you don’t know what is going to happen to you.

Working on commission means he is always on call, nights and weekends. As a result he does not get to spend much time with his daughter. He also finds it challenging to meet with friends as he often has to work nights and weekends when social events happen. Working 60 or more hours is not unusual.

While most new immigrants enter the labour market through insecure, we find many Canadian born workers across the GTA-Hamilton region are facing similar issues. We will be releasing a major report early in the new year that explores what this means for households and our communities and what we can do to minimize the stress of not having secure permanent employment.

About the blog author

Dr. Wayne Lewchuk is professor of Labour Studies and Economics at McMaster University. His most research focused on the health effects of precarious employment.  The results of this study were published by McGill Queen’s University Press in the spring of 2011 in a volume titled Working Without Commitments: Precarious Employment and Health.  He is currently the co-director of a five year joint university community research program on Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO).  He holds a BA and MA in economics from the University of Toronto, and a Ph.D in economics from the University of Cambridge.


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