Immigrant families are living in poverty in spite of working hard


August 14, 2013 by ceris

Access Alliance recently released a new report titled Where are the Good Jobs? Ten stories of ‘working rough, living poor.’ This report is a follow up to our ‘Working Rough, Living Poor’ report (released in 2011) and contains ten powerful case stories of immigrant families from racialized background (‘visible minority’) who are struggling to find stable employment in Canada.  Both reports can be downloaded at:

Stories as telling evidence:

Image The case stories of these ten families provide heart-wrenching real life accounts – and telling evidence – of what it is like for racialized immigrant families to be trapped in a vicious cycle of bad jobs, near-poverty conditions, and deteriorating health.  It is important that we put names and faces to these stories, reminding ourselves that people’s lives, families and futures are at stake.

Take, for example, the Adani family (pseudo-names used for confidentiality reasons) who came to Canada from India. The husband has an Engineering degree and an MBA from the United Kingdom. He assumed that Canada was a country that values people with multiple qualifications. Thus he had high hopes for a management level job in the engineering field. Instead he has been stuck in one factory job after another (e.g. welding, making boxes, baker). Not surprisingly, but sadly, he has suffered multiple workplace injuries. His wife has a graduate degree in Commerce and over 10 years of experience in accounting. She thought accounting would be a readily transferable skill in Canada (“accounting is same everywhere” she noted).  However, even after sending 1500 applications, the best she can get is a part-time “office clerk” level job. She keeps a copy of all of the 1500 job application emails for her sanity. The office clerk job never becomes full-time no matter how hard she works or how many times she asks to make it full time.

The story of two sisters from Peru (the Pérez family) surviving as single mothers and living together in the same household is very telling as well. Both sisters came to Canada through the live-in caregiver program (one in the early 1980s and the second one a decade later). Both faced immense hardship and exploitation working as live-in caregivers. Both faced acute isolation. Since then, the two sisters have been stuck in part-time shift jobs in the hospitality field for over 10 years. Sadly, the fact that they both work in unionized environment has not helped to improve their employment conditions.

The difficulties that immigrant parents face in getting good jobs have negative intergenerational impacts on the educational and employment outcomes of their children. This is brought to light by challenges faced by two young families in our study (the Bolivar and Suárez families) whose parents came to Canada as refugees and faced excessive difficulties in getting their permanent residency status. These young immigrant families had high professional dreams (male nurse, Canadian Armed Forces) and instead are stuck in heavy manual labour jobs. Tanya Wilson, a single Black mother, who came to Canada 20 years ago with her parents, is in the same situation.

See report for full version of the case stories. All ten families are living in near-poverty conditions in spite of working hard. Their experiences reflect the harsh reality faced by many racialized immigrant families all over Canada.

Finding Real Solutions:

Most employment and settlement services focus on modifying individual behaviors of immigrant workers (eg reshuffling their resumes, Canadian workplace preparedness training) instead of trying to overcome structural barriers to stable employment. Worse, some offer trainings in jobs that tend to be very unstable and low-paying (eg home-based childcare). We need to reverse this situation. Here are five actions that service providers can take to proactively address the root causes:

1. Report and take proactive action against racism and other forms of discrimination that your clients face in the labour market; advocate for employment equity and discrimination free workplaces (starting with your own agency).

2. Report against unsafe and exploitative working conditions that your clients are facing. Train and support precariously employed clients to use their rights (based on Employment Standards Act, Occupational Health and Safety Act) to improve their conditions. This can include getting holiday pay, better working hours, adequate breaks, timely pay raise, promotions, and benefits.

3. Enable marginalized immigrant families to build strong professional networks/linkages with successful people within their fields as well as across different fields, class, and community.

4. Build stronger links with the educational sector and with employers to promote newcomer-friendly bridging programs, mentorship programs, internship/apprenticeship programs, and on-the-job learning programs – including on-the-job English learning programs—that can lead to stable employment pathways.

5.  Create more job developer positions with proven ability to link hard working immigrants to safe, stable, well-paying and discrimination free employment pathways.

We want to hear from you about tangible and proven solutions to enable precariously employed immigrant families get stable good jobs.

About the blog authors.

yogendra picYogendra B. Shakya is Senior Research Scientist at Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services. His research interests include social determinants of newcomer health, refugee health, and racialized health disparities and he leads a number of multi-phase research agendas on these issues. Under Yogendra’s direction, Access Alliance has become a recognized leader in innovating and promoting community-based research practices in Canada. He is a proud father of two beautiful young children, and when he is not doing research Yogendra is busy composing children’s songs. Yogendra can be reached at

axelle picAxelle Janczur is the Executive Director of Access Alliance Multicultural Heath and Community Services. Axelle has been working in the not for profit sector in Toronto for over 25 years. She is an experienced trainer and public speaker, and a committed volunteer. With an M.A. in political science and an MBA from the Schulich School of Business, as Executive Director, she has led Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services through a transformative process, prioritizing capacity building to enhance services for immigrants and refugees, developing a community based research agenda and advocating for improved access to the determinants of health for individuals and communities facing discrimination and marginalization. Axelle can be reached at


4 thoughts on “Immigrant families are living in poverty in spite of working hard

  1. raymondhyma says:

    An issue that seems to persist in Canada despite acknowledgement and advocacy from nearly every angle – community, academia, and even the government itself. There has been a more recent push to change the immigrant profile of him/herself to be a supposedly higher quality and easily employable individual in the Canadian labour market. More advocacy on employers and the questioning of so-called “Canadian experience” needs to continue. I believe that in the current direction, temporary foreign workers will inevitably fill the low-skilled gap and permanent residents and future citizens will complement a type of cultural objective that hasn’t been defined before in the mosaic model. I commend Access Alliance for bringing faces to the stories that both service providers and academics know very well.

  2. […] B. Shakya, Senior Research Scientist, Access Alliance (modified version first published in the CERIS Blog, August […]

  3. […] in the Department of Sociology, York University. This article draws on research reported in CERIS Working Paper “What Do Immigrants Do When They Can’t Practise Their Professions? Immigrant Professionals in […]

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