Clinical Counsellor, Mental Health Services
Toronto, 26 January 2021 by Skills for Change
The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts on the immigration and settlement sector in Canada, and far worse disproportionate impacts on immigrants and refugees. It has created an unprecedented crisis posing critical threats to the social and economic well-being of immigrants and refugees with long-term repercussions for their settlement as well as implications for the future of the Canadian labour market.
Expert leaders from the academic and nonprofit sectors discussed these long-term impacts and their repercussions on the Canadian labour market. Moderated by Skills for Change’s CEO, Surranna Sandy, the panel discussion highlighted the need for crucial policies to reinvigorate the immigration and refugee settlement sector as well as innovative approaches to support and embed an inclusive and equitable labour market in Canada. The panelists echoed the unique opportunity brought about by the pandemic to rethink and reset the sector’s strategies, operational policies and the skills and employment agenda, in order to build a firmer foundation for a solid equitable and inclusive
post-pandemic sector and economy.
Reflecting on what’s at stake
Key approaches to consider included implementing a universal basic income, provision of employment insurance, mandatory provision of sick leave, access to public health care for immigrant newcomers, better protections for workers, investment in upskilling and reskilling of workers, mentorship, transition from credentials to skillset assessments and tailoring employment services to support workers sidelined by automation. Other focus areas identified included expanding the scope of programs targeting low-skill adults including language training at the workplace and fast-tracking and regularizing immigrants and non-status peoples’ path to permanent residency.
John Shields, Professor at Ryerson University highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic had shone light on systematic barriers and existing inequalities that further triggered negative impacts on immigrants and refugees. He emphasized the unequal burdens that immigrants bear including facing a greater risk and exposure to contracting COVID-19 because of higher incidences of poverty (low skilled jobs and incomes), overcrowded housing conditions and reliance on public transit. He also acknowledged that the pandemic had redefined the relevance of frontline workers and the lack of opportunity accorded to them. “Contrary to the narrative that the pandemic has been a natural leveler affecting everyone, the pandemic has been a great revealer of structural inequalities”, he noted, “The pandemic has revealed an unequal burden placed on immigrants and refugees who have limited access to programs and social benefits, are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 as they are employed in jobs that were previously considered unskilled but are now deemed front-line essential services. Their skills are further impacted the longer they stay out of the labour market due to the pandemic lockdown.
Highlighting changes for an equitable recovery to ensure that no one is left behind, Adwoa K. Buahene, CEO, Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) emphasized the need to use an intersectional lens. “There is a need to use an intersectional lens when we think about recovery to acknowledge intersectionality of immigrants and to ensure a targeted response, given that we know that racialized and/or immigrant women have been particularly exponentially impacted by the results of COVID-19,” she said, adding that, “Also, while we reflect on how to work on solutions to make newcomers prepared for the Canadian labour market, we must also focus on the key role that employers can play in understanding an evaluating the value proposition, the experience and skills/competency brought by immigrants”.
Carl Cadogan, CEO, Reception House Waterloo Region underscored the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on refugees affecting their settlement and integration into the Canadian economy. He underlined efforts undertaken to support their wellbeing and integration in communities during the pandemic. “As an organization providing settlement services to government assisted refugees, we looked at new ways to respond to refugees’ needs for accommodation, employment and language training. While technology has proved to be a boon in the shift to virtual space, it remains a barrier for many,” he said. “Many refugees experience frustration due to lack of affordability and accessibility of technology. We need creative ways to support their upskilling and find employment opportunities. The role of organizations serving refugees is crucial in ensuring their protection and settlement in the light of widening gaps in their economic and social condition.”
Addressing the disruption in the labour market caused by increasing digital transformation and automation leading to offsetting workers, Pedro Barata, Executive Director of Future Skills Centre noted the drastic changing trends in the job market, and how employment insurance has been an anchor alleviating and providing short term relief with the loss of jobs to automation particularly for low-skilled immigrants. He stressed the expected rise of immigration trends in the future and its significance to Canada’s economic and social development. This called for inclusive policies to prepare and equip the labour market creating viable employment opportunities for internationally trained professionals post-COVID-19. “To ensure the transition to skilling and reskilling the workforce, our focus should be on affordable and extensive training networks, new employer incentives for workplace training and a strategy to support immigrant serving organizations to do more outreach and highlight more data driven work,” he noted. “Reimagining the trends in terms of a shift from credentials to skillset is critical to equipping the immigrants to navigate their path in Canada.”
Providing unique perspectives and insights into the pandemic’s impact on refugee claimants and non-status migrants, Francisco Rico-Martinez, Co-Director at FCJ Refugee Centre shade light on the circumstances that led to their precarity including the lack of access to certain facilities and provisions offered to full status immigrants, and how this has been aggravated during the pandemic. Non-status people are undocumented by the government and this makes it harder for organizations to make critical decisions on how to support them without having data about their numbers and needs, supporting them only on a case-by-case basis. Francisco also raised the problematic issue of reliance on credential assessments rather than skills which profoundly affected migrants and their contribution to the Canadian labour market, especially those who were skilled with an inadmissible certification in Canada.
“In Canada, we don’t assess skills, we assess credentials. So, we have many people that come to Canada as a visitor, as a refugee… They have a lot of skills but if they want to use their skills, they have to use them ‘under the table’.” Francisco made vivid recommendations to support uprooted people from being further marginalized in precarity. “There is need to have a very concrete program that offers regularization of workers and families that are already here that have no clear path to permanent residence. A clear path that can recognize people’s skill-set more than their credentials. There is also a need to have universal access to all the levels of education, particularly for precarious migrants or people that don’t have status.”
Acknowledging Francisco’s recommendation, Carl Cadogan highlighted initiatives such as Quebec’s program of ‘guardian angels’ that was undertaken to provide asylum seekers working in the health-care related professions with eligibility to apply for permanent residency. He emphasized that those people doing jobs ‘under the table’ need to be recognized and there needs to be a way to give them a chance to become permanent residents. “There is a strong need to broaden pilot projects such as Quebec’s guardian angels to cut across the country to fast-track the process of acquiring permanent residency, as these people are supporting our communities and are critical to our communities’ well-being.”
Policy window opportunity to reset
“The pandemic has opened a policy window – we need to avoid the austerity agenda”, Professor Shields noted, calling for the need to move forward in progressive multiple policy ways. “It is time that we collectively focus on solutions driven by inclusivity and equality,” he said, “The Canadian labour market is in dire need of reforms that encourage skills development for all ends of the spectrum, and this can only be possible if we support and empower all individuals seeking opportunities including immigrants. We need contracts and laws that provide a certain level of confidence and security to people, not dependent on their background or social strata.”
His sentiments were re-echoed by Adwoa Buahene and Pedro Barata, with the latter highlighting the value proposition of immigrants and Canada as a country of immigrants. “We need to work together, in collaboration and in coalition to address the systemic challenges and barriers facing the immigration and refugee settlement sector,” Barata added.
Surranna Sandy concluded the engaging session with a call to continue to work together to alleviate the challenges faced by immigrants, refugees and non-status persons, to better equip the immigration and refugee settlement sector to become more resilient to external shocks through concerted efforts, to build capacity and better address the challenges of unemployment and underemployment of immigrants, as well as increased advocacy and outreach to drive an inclusive and equitable labour market agenda in Canada.
The next Spotlight Series is in honour of the Black History month and is slated on February 23rd from 11am to 12pm, focused on COVID-19 and Anti-Black Racism, a double-edged sword for Black Entrepreneurs.