Precarious Employment for Immigrant Women: The Mythology of Multiculturalism
Integrating into Canadian culture can be a lengthy and difficult process for newcomers to Canada. For racialized immigrant women in particular, the challenges of integration can be incredibly daunting. Despite the fact that immigrant women have a 23% higher rate of post-secondary educational attainment than non-immigrant women, statistics show that they experience the worst labour market outcomes in the country. A study released in June 2017 by Immigration Ontario revealed that female immigrants experience an 8.3 percent employment gap compared to Canadian-born women. Unlike immigrant men, this remains a gap that immigrant women have been unable to close with their Canadian-born counterparts. The gap is explained in the study as the residue from “lingering gender roles” from the immigrant’s country of origin. However, such an explanation fails to account for factors closer to home, namely those that arise from Canadian policy and the Canadian cultural paradigm. It is time we acknowledge that gender and racial inequalities lie at the crux of Canadian society, and that in order to improve the material conditions of immigrant women in the workforce we must first combat the prejudices deeply embedded in our own “multicultural” nation. If the so-called economic class immigrants (persons and their relatives entering as business immigrants, investors, and so forth, as opposed to persons entering through the Humanitarian or Family classes) come to Canada with marketable professional skills, why are we seeing such a disproportionately high rate of female immigrants in low-skilled, low-paying fields? Canada purports to be a welcoming and progressive nation, but it has more flaws than we like to think.
The assumption that immigrant cultures are the cause of their own marginalization exemplifies the way that Canadians are often quick to blame other cultures for being sources of disunity and retrogression. Despite the election of self-proclaimed feminist Prime Minister Trudeau, women in Canada continue to make 74 cents to every dollar earned by a man, face high rates of gender-based violence, and bear the brunt of domestic labour including child and elderly care. When looking at the number of structural and social factors that set immigrant women apart from immigrant men during settlement, it is no coincidence that recent immigrant women are being confined to lower paid and lower skilled work. An example of a structural factor would be the way in which immigrant women become a “captive labour force” in that they are considered to be valuable to the function and prosperity of the labour market, yet are treated as disposable and confined primarily to undervalued service or factory work. Furthermore, statistics regarding Canada’s economic stream of immigration indicate that “women are disproportionately found in the live-in care giver category and men are highly represented as business immigrants”. Structural factors are indicative of the way in which gender roles remain as pervasive as ever in Canada, especially for those kept at the bottom of the class pyramid.
Canada’s image as an inclusive, multicultural society has allowed for these racist structures to persist undisturbed and has engendered an erasure of the real experiences of immigrants. In denying the treatment of immigrants in Canada, we belittle minority cultures and contradict the doctrine of multiculturalism altogether.
Social factors inhibiting immigrant women include unpaid household and caregiving work, a lack of affordable childcare, and social isolation or a lack of awareness of or access to social services. Canadian culture tends to undervalue domestic labour as “many of women's contributions to the economy continue to go unrecognized because their work is not easily counted within the conventional structures”. Historically, labour viewed as feminine, such as labour in the private sphere, is disregarded as ‘women’s work’ and therefore dismissed as unimportant. However, male breadwinners would be unable to perform on their job adequately if they were also responsible for childcare, maintaining the house, and cooking for the family. Thus, the role of women in the household is tremendously significant to the function of the economy and its formally recognized labourers. Additionally, mandatory work-hour requirements when an immigrant is qualifying for permanent residency serve as a significant burden to newcomers. There is also an occurrence of reinforced subordination in the family structure when it becomes more difficult for a recently immigrated couple to find jobs, which can lead to problematic spousal relationships. These hurdles set before women entering Canada often relegate them to entry-level or gendered part-time jobs regardless of their level of work or educational experience. In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that the hourly wages of immigrant women are 20 percent lower than that of their Canadian-born counterparts. As recent immigrants are pushed into lower paying jobs and as a result, cannot afford childcare, the role of the woman within the household frequently becomes more critical which ultimately hinders her capacity to work a full-time job.
Structural factors are indicative of the way in which gender roles remain as pervasive as ever in Canada, especially for those kept at the bottom of the class pyramid.
White immigrants face less discrimination in the labour market when compared to racialized immigrants. For example, the income disparity between racialized Canadians and non-racialized Canadians is 81.4 cents to the dollar. More severely, the income disparity between racialized women and non-racialized men is 55.6 cents to the dollar. One would not expect to find racism at the heart of Canadian institutions, and it is therefore tempting to look at legislation like the Multiculturalism Act of 1988 as the comprehensive resolution of racial inequality in Canada. In practice, however, a look at immigrant performance in the labour market suggests that something is not working. With regard to multiculturalism, many left-leaning Canadians seem to assume that this concept is synonymous with the eradication of racism. This is as absurd as saying: “isn’t it great that Trudeau unilaterally eradicated gender inequality when he appointed a half-female cabinet!”. Legislation cannot solve the problem without active social reform and acceptance.
Systemic race-based discrimination can be defined as practices and norms of an established institution that operate to exclude racial minorities. This type of discrimination exists even among the most progressive of employers. The Government of Canada itself has a glass ceiling in the sense that it keeps racialized minorities out of senior managerial positions. While white supremacists roam proudly on American streets, it is easy for us to overlook the subtleties of Canada’s racist tendencies. And yet, to the extent that racism is “brushed off as a relic from the past, relatively muted and randomly expressed, isolated to a few lunatic fringes or articulated by the sadly misinformed” as Augie Fleras has argued, we must continue to look for it in the folds of our primary social institutions; the workplace, the school system, the legislatures and so on.
With regard to multiculturalism, many left-leaning Canadians seem to assume that this concept is synonymous with the eradication of racism. This is as absurd as saying: “isn’t it great that Trudeau unilaterally eradicated gender inequality when he appointed a half-female cabinet!”. Legislation cannot solve the problem without active social reform and acceptance.
Although Trudeau’s government is purporting to work towards a more inclusionary immigration system, the lack of attention paid to pre-existing inequalities within Canadian society contributes to the overall discrimination against immigrants during their years settling in Canada. Systemic racism and gender-based discrimination are being omitted from discussions of Canadian multiculturalism and diversity. This explains why it is commonplace in right-wing circles to deny that women of colour are systemically oppressed in what is considered an inclusive Western society – especially when we compare ourselves to our neighbours just south of the border. While steps are being made to address the intersections of race, class, and gender in the courts, the Liberal government has yet to deal with it in other contexts, such as immigration and settlement.
In blaming source countries for carrying gender inequalities into Canada, we deny the institutionalized racism and misogyny that persist in our country and hinder our own capacity for change and growth. In light of the recent 150th anniversary celebrations that projected Canada’s diverse and benevolent image onto the world stage, it is time to think critically of who we really are as a country. If entire groups of Canadian citizens, such as racialized immigrant women, are struggling to secure for themselves an adequate life in a country that promised them a better one, we must rethink the way our culture operates. Canada’s image as an inclusive, multicultural society has allowed for these racist structures to persist undisturbed and has engendered an erasure of the real experiences of immigrants. In denying the treatment of immigrants in Canada, we belittle minority cultures and contradict the doctrine of multiculturalism altogether. The persisting and prolonged exclusion of racialized immigrant women denotes the shortcomings of Canadian society and reveals the long path to equality that lies before us.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the McGill Left Review's editorial board.