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Culture & Society

The Hard Labour of Finding Good Work

Migrants are determined to find jobs, but face systemic barriers

When Ruba Bilal and her husband, along with one of their sons, landed in Toronto in 2016 as a privately sponsored refugee from Syria (via Lebanon), they focused intently on finding good jobs that matched their respective career experiences.

After enrolling in bridging and mentorship programs, Bilal, a 43-year-old business administrative lead, sent out dozens of resumés. Then she learned about Jumpstart, a non-profit that matches recent refugees with jobs. Through the organization, Bilal found work in 2018, first at a non-profit and subsequently at a Mississauga property management company where she now oversees an HR team of 13 direct reports. “We started with zero,” she reflects, “but the people around us were all supportive. It was something amazing, like magic.”

The vast majority of migrants arrive with a strong determination to find jobs, become self-sufficient and regain the sense of self-worth that work brings. Even those who come to Canada on temporary permits express the desire to be as productive as possible, says Prof. Patricia Landolt, chair of U of T Scarborough’s sociology department and an immigration scholar. “I’ve never interviewed anyone who said, ‘I’m not going to try as hard as I can.’”

But there are systemic barriers that thwart migrants’ desire to work, such as lengthy credential recognition processes and Canadian work experience requirements.

In big cities such as Toronto, the story of migration and work is intensely complicated and variable. Some, such as Bilal, land on their feet; others struggle in low-paying and menial jobs. Migrants who have lost their status may be forced to take informal work in fields such as hospitality where they are paid in cash and enjoy almost no legal protections from abusive employers.  

I’ve never interviewed anyone who said, ‘I’m not going to try as hard as I can.’

The sprawling health-care and long term–care sectors depend on thousands of caregivers – and “the vast majority are women, and a large proportion are immigrant women and women of colour,” observes Prof. Ito Peng of sociology, who oversees the Gender, Migration and the Work of Care project at U of T’s Centre for Global Social Policy.

Many are here on temporary work visas, but she says it’s not uncommon for these “documented migrants to become undocumented when they overstay their visas.” Some have good reason to want to stay on: careworkers and live-in domestics in other countries, including much of the Asia Pacific region, aren’t covered by employment standards laws, says Peng, who is also director of U of T’s Centre for Global Policy.

Landolt’s research also shows that the number of migrants entering Canada on temporary work visas as a proportion of overall immigration has increased dramatically in recent years. Some of these migrants go on to establish lives here and seek permanent resident status – but this drawn-out bureaucratic process can take years, creating uncertainty and a period of “precarious non-citizenship.”

In 2006, Landolt and her team interviewed 300 migrants who had come to Canada from Latin America and the Caribbean. The researchers found that people who had spent any time in precarious status were more likely to find poor quality work and maintain poor quality work instead of advancing through higher-skilled and better-paying positions, as is the more typical trajectory with permanent residents. As she says, “The system is creating a probationary pool of people with one hand tied behind their backs in terms of rights.”

John Lorinc

Creating Access to Quality Jobs

What can be done to give migrant workers equal access to decent jobs? U of T Scarborough prof. Patricia Landolt says a good start is to abolish “closed work permits,” which restrict migrants’ ability to change employers or to transition to a higher skill level. Also, permits attached to a lower skill level don’t have a pathway to switch to permanent residence. “It basically creates a ceiling on their mobility, not just at a particular place of work but within a sector,” she says.

Prof. Patricia Landolt. Photo by Ken Jones

In addition, Prof. Ito Peng of U of T’s Centre for Global Social Policy says migrant workers would benefit from a faster system for assessing foreign credentials as well as practical supports such as workshops on resumé writing and job interviews. Peng also suggests better employment protection and higher wages in general. “Public policy shouldn’t just focus on the newcomers themselves but also on Canadian employers and business people,” Peng adds. She notes there’s a need for anti-discrimination and anti-racism workshops to counter unconscious bias among employers.

Geoff Vendeville


This is one of a five-part series entitled “In Search of Safe Refuge,” covering issues of health care, employment, detainment, shelter and education for refugees and migrants in Canada.

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  1. One Response to “ The Hard Labour of Finding Good Work ”

  2. a refugee says:

    This is exactly what I'm going through. As a refugee, I'm struggling to find a job as an architect and give back to the community while doing what I'm passionate about. I tried sending resumes and networking for the past six months without any luck.