Human capital represents the skills and qualifications valued by Canadian employers. Regrettably, many immigrants possess skills and credentials that are not being recognized, or only partially recognized, in the Canadian labor market. This lead to underutilization of immigrant skills and underemployment of immigrants, often to the detriment of immigrant health (Subedi and Rosenberg 2016
The most prevalent human capital barriers, as conveyed by interviewees in this research, are the lack of English language proficiency, insufficient Canadian work experience, and non-recognition of foreign credentials.
5.1.1. Lack of English Language Proficiency
Research has found that immigrant women who spoke official languages fluently also had higher participation rates in the Canadian labor market compared to immigrant women who did not (Preston and Giles 2004
). It is apparent that left unaddressed, this barrier substantially diminishes employment opportunities for immigrant women. In this research, many immigrant women felt as though they couldn’t express themselves properly because of a lack of English vocabulary; this not only negatively impacted their employment opportunity but also self-esteem.
“… I had low self-esteem. That low self-esteem came from the language barrier … Because of the barrier, language barrier, I feel like I am not even a five-year-old boy. They can speak well at least; they can get what they want … five-year-old kids can express all that they have, but in my case, I have more [knowledge and experiences] than them, but I can’t bring it out [sic]”.
(Hyun-Jae, South Korean).
“Yeah, I know if I speak in Chinese, I can get to the very good expression of … what I’m thinking, of what I’m caring, something like that. But English, I have to speak so directly (simplistically) to say yes or no. I cannot get something in the middle (nuances), you know?”
Unfortunately, this low self-confidence impedes their ability to practice English because immigrants “don’t feel confident to talk with people here” (Lucero, Latin American). For example, one immigrant woman talked about not being able to speak with customers because she was too embarrassed to speak English: “Like, when the customers come in, I’d back off. I’m shy, I don’t want to meet them …” (Adi, African). Another woman shows how this inability to speak to others can affect employment: “… also with our language barrier […] we don’t have the confidence to apply [for] office work […] So it’s kind of difficult” (Bituin, Filipino).
Even for immigrants who have a sufficient level of English proficiency, there is always this sense that it is inadequate and they need, and work hard, to improve it.
“… everyone says my English is fine, but for me, it’s not fine. I still need to improve [and] I’m working on it right now […] For me, although I can understand […] but with my accent […] like strong accent […] I need to improve and I need to work it out …”
Most often, those who come over with a family feel as though they don’t have the time to practice their English. It is in their opinion that they cannot afford the cost (financially and time commitment) of taking English as the Second Language (ESL) classes, even though the classes could increase their chances at getting better-paying jobs: “learning a language is not that easy … It’s time-consuming and effort-consuming […] Most people give up to be [a] fluent English speaker” (Hyun-Jae, South Korean).
Additionally, despite all of their efforts to improve language skills, some immigrants faced problems with the ESL program in Central Alberta, hindering their language skills. For example, immigrants were limited in the opportunities that ESL offered:
“… I have finished Level 4 […] I thought I would go to Level 5, but they canceled […] So at that time, I lost my way. Because they told us, there is no Level 5 anymore and …. I ask them, ‘Where can I go?’ They say, ‘We don’t know’”
Immigrant women cannot get a skilled position due to their language barriers but then cannot practice their English in their unskilled positions. This gives rise to a vicious cycle of lack of English language proficiency that leads to a lack of opportunities to acquire that proficiency: “In my job, I clean, I don’t speak. I no practice [English]” (Maria, Latin American). Since most unskilled positions are filled by immigrants and are more labor intensive so they don’t need to speak very much English to communicate with co-workers, which can impede their time to practice English:
“95% of my co-workers speak Filipino. Maybe you are surprised because three months I have worked […] as you see my language [has not improved]. If I worked with [native born] Canadians, I’m pretty sure my language will be [better] …”
“At Olymel (a meat processing plant), most of the time [workers] don’t have to talk. It’s the process that they have to follow. In that case, they just use physical effort there.”
(Lucero, Latin American).
Being in a situation where support to increase English language proficiency was lacking, some immigrant women took the initiative to find ways to enhance their language proficiency:
“Now I work [at] drive-through, not [cash] till. I want to work there (drive-through), I told them I want to [improve] my language. If … I work in drive-through windows, it’s better for [improving my language] …”
“You know, [we look] for resources […] renting library books, like children’s books, you know with tapes, things like that. And listening to songs and reading the lyrics at the same time just to get, you know, better English. And talking to people, a lot.”
(Adolfina, Latin American)
In 2006, 70.2% of immigrants reported a mother tongue other than English or French. In 2016, 72.5% of immigrants reported having a mother tongue other than English or French (Statistics Canada 2017a
). The largest proportion of immigrants reported Chinese languages (18.6%), followed by Italian (6.6%), Punjabi (5.9%), Spanish (5.8%), German (5.4%), Tagalog (4.8%), and Arabic (4.7%) languages as their mother tongue (Statistics Canada 2017a
). Specifically, in 2011, 70.4% of female immigrants had a non-official mother tongue only. This is an increase of 18.4% compared to the year 1981, as indicated in Table 2
. This degree of language diversity is related to a decreasing proportion of immigrants landing in Canada from Europe (Hudon 2015
Visible minority immigrant women that we interviewed, in general, possess sufficient language proficiency for casual interactions with family, friends, and to engage in community activities. Their level of official language proficiency, however, is often insufficient for them to secure better jobs or access further education opportunities. According to Anisef et al.
(2012, p. vi
), even after four years, about 15% of immigrant women reported they either could not speak or manage to speak an official language poorly. Immigrant women who speak official languages poorly tended to be older at arrival, visible minorities, migrate as family class or refugees, and come from regions in Asia and the Middle East (Anisef et al. 2012
). The language training programs provided to immigrant women need to be adjusted to take into account these factors.
5.1.2. Lack of Canadian Work Experience
“Canadian Work Experience” is an elusive term that immigrants often get asked when applying for a job. It refers to the command of technical knowledge situated in the Canadian context. More significantly, it alludes to cultural nuances, or “tacit knowledge” that immigrants are often assumed need to be acculturated to (Sakamoto et al. 2010
). New immigrants, men and women alike, are often excluded from Canadian positions because local employers do not value foreign work experience.
In a study, Guo
) found that 66% of Chinese immigrants in Edmonton and Calgary who had not achieved their main goal of immigration cited lack of Canadian work experience as the main obstacle. We encounter the same situation in our research. A participant stated that: “I find it’s … not easy to find a job just because you don’t have the Canadian work experience” and suggested “more programs that can help women to have the experience here. Because almost every employer is asking for the Canadian experience when you want to apply for a job.” (MeiZhu, Chinese)
One immigrant woman talked about her experience after three months in Canada; although she had a masters from an English speaking country and plenty of teaching experience, she was unable to secure a teaching position in Canada:
“I had those skills … It was discouraging when they said: ‘But [do] you have Canadian experience? … We need people with some kind of Canadian experience’ … I don’t have that Canadian experience [but] just give me the opportunity to show my skills.”
(Anfinsa, Latin American)
As a strategy, some immigrants take the route of volunteering to gain Canadian experience, as indicated by Sara:
“I felt perhaps they discriminate, but at the same time, I think those people were hiring persons that they don’t know … they wanted to be sure that I had the skills they needed, and I didn’t know how to prove that. If a Principal of a school wanted to hire me, it wasn’t just because I looked good or I look like a nice person, he wanted to be sure that I had those skills, and I didn’t have that proof. It was discouraging when they said, ‘but [do] you have Canadian experience?’ So I started to look, to go for places for new immigrants and volunteered. I did a lot of volunteering …”
While volunteering helped immigrants to increase their social networks and social capital, it does not usually lead to meaningful employment, mostly because volunteering position usually is not closely related to an immigrant volunteer’s job expertise (Wilson-Forsberg and Sethi 2015
). More targeted job shadowing, training, or skill upgrading will better serve the goal of immigrants’ labor market integration.
5.1.3. Lack of Recognition of Academic Credential
Many men and women who migrate as skilled workers to Canada found, upon their arrival, that their foreign academic credentials were not fully recognized by the provincial accreditation agencies, education institutions, and Canadian employers. This is alarming since, in 2006, 58% of male and 49% of recent female immigrants held credentials at or above the bachelor level (Chui 2011
). Out of those who held higher education, only one-third of the most skilled Korean and Filipino women were employed in professional jobs, along with only two-third of the most skilled female immigrants originating from the United States or Romania (Preston and Giles 2004
Many immigrants have no idea that their credentials wouldn’t be recognized: “No, I didn’t know anything about it” (Meizhu, Chinese). As a result, without substantial upgrading, they could not practice the professions they previously occupied in their country of origin. The following women had to start from an entry-level position again in order to get back into a position equivalent to the one she held in her country of origin:
“It’s kind of hard you know … like the transformation from work that I had, and now to have this kind of work, it’s different. Even though I got the training [in my country of origin] … but when I came here in Canada I have to work from scratch.”
“We applied under the skilled worker status because … I was getting the highest points for … my qualifications … But in reality … when you enter Canada … then it’s not recognized.”
Additionally, even when immigrants re-certified themselves, some immigrants expressed they didn’t have a guaranteed opportunity for employment at their certification level. Boyd and Schellenberg
) report that out of all eligible certified medical doctors, 12% of immigrants were unemployed as compared to only 2% of Canadian-born. Moreover, while 90% of Canadian-born who were trained as physicians worked as physicians, only 55% of foreign-born who were trained as physicians had the same opportunity (Boyd and Schellenberg 2007
In order to overcome the lack of recognition of foreign credentials, some immigrants seek to acquire Canadian academic credential. Nevertheless, the road to a Canadian academic credential is a challenging one. One of the most discussed topics surrounding immigrant finances was the decision between upgrading credentials or working full-time to support their families. These immigrant women discussed the endless circle between the two choices:
“I don’t know how I’m going to be ready for this test (exam). I have to find money (i.e., work) for my family.”
(Lucho, Latin American).
“If I decide to work full-time […] I have to leave [my education] because there is no time. I have to work from eight to three p.m., so I have to leave [the learning of] English, I have […] I have to leave my dreams.”
“Yes, it’s a big decision […] you need to think a hundred times […] focus on your study more or focus more on your work, because staying here in Canada you need an income so you can survive. [Even] if you have that option of studying, how could you support your studies here when you’re not working?”
“… working full-time and at the same time studying, it’s too much and it [stresses] me, so I try to lessen my workload.”
In addition to paying for tuition and then supporting the family while in school, finding affordable daycare for young children was also difficult. A lack of affordable childcare prevents female and male immigrants alike to upgrade their credentials, receive higher education or expand employment options (Park 2011
). This was especially true when immigrants needed daycare to study for credential recognition exams or classes because there are no programs to recognize these needs. These two immigrant women talk about the difficulties that their husbands faced when trying to juggle their children and their studies:
“… if he has to go full-time [study], our children are small, someone has to stay with them or send them to the day home. Then we need the money to pay for the daycare. So he has to work, but [if he does] he cannot study […] So financially, for us, it is better for him to stay home with the children […] and it’s just a vicious cycle […] So, we’ve been kind of trying to, trying to get out of this situation that we are in, but it is very hard.”
“He has a very difficult time. He had to work on his thesis, at the same time he had to take care of our young daughter.”
The deployment of human capital by immigrants hinges upon the recognition of foreign credential and work experience. As indicated in Table 3
, there is a clear divide in the rate of recognition of foreign credential and work experience between immigrant men and women. Four years after landing, only 22% of female immigrants have their foreign credential, and 23% of their foreign work experience recognized compared to 33% and 51% respectively among immigrant men.
Studies show that immigrants from English-speaking regions (the United States as well as the United Kingdom–Australia–New Zealand group) had a higher rate of foreign credential and work experience recognition (Houle and Yssaad 2010, pp. 27–28
). “Newcomers who were part of a visible minority also had a lower probability of having their work experience recognized compared to their non-visible minority counterparts” (Houle and Yssaad 2010, p. 25
). The numbers in Table 4
and Table 5
demonstrate the differing outcomes of foreign credential and work experience recognition. While the rate of recognition of foreign credential among the non-visible minority with visible minority immigrants is small, i.e., 29% and 27% respectively, there is a significant gap between non-visible and visible minority regarding recognition of foreign work experience, i.e., 50% and 35% respectively. There is also a clear difference between Western and non-Western countries when it comes to where an immigrant obtained his/her highest education or last permanent residence, with Western countries being more advantageous.
The reasons for non-recognition of foreign credential varies--such as they are being discounted as less relevant to the Canadian labor market, barriers of entry procedures in some trades and professions, and unfamiliarity among employers (Houle and Yssaad 2010, p. 18
). Nevertheless, Reitz et al.
) argue that “there is convincing evidence of the significance of processes of discriminatory disadvantage affecting skilled immigrants” (Reitz et al. 2014, p. 3
), and based on cases coming before the Canadian Human Rights Commission, part of the discrimination could be racial (Reitz et al. 2014, p. 20
) argues that discrimination is partly rooted in “epistemological misperceptions of difference and knowledge” that leads to the belief in the inferior knowledge of immigrants from Third World countries.
If immigrants do not have the means to go back to upgrade their education, they are often stuck working low wage positions and basically work to survive. “The salary you can have is fair enough that you can support yourself as a beginner here in Canada … it’s enough to survive …” (Bituin, Filipino) but insufficient to rebuild their human capital to be fully recognized by Canadian employers and obtain higher paying jobs. Table 6
shows the median wages for immigrants from different regions of birth. It is clear that immigrant women consistently earned less than immigrant men, and immigrants from English speaking countries such as Europe and the United States fare better than immigrants from the non-English-speaking region such as East Asia.