According to a batch of recent data, the Canadian economy is performing exceptionally well at the moment: nearly 80,000 new jobs – many of them full-time – were created in November; unemployment is at its lowest level in a decade; average wages for permanent employees are rising steadily; and, at 3 percent, Canada’s GDP has grown faster in 2017 than that of any other G7 country.
But there’s one group in particular that doesn’t seem to be enjoying the benefits of this boom: immigrants.
Census research published a few weeks ago by Statistics Canada revealed a massive 16 percent gap between the average wage of a Canadian-born worker and the average wage of an immigrant working in Canada.
The gap is even more pronounced in three of Canada’s most popular immigrant cities. In Toronto, an immigrant worker will make 25 percent less than a Canadian, in Calgary they will make 23 percent less, and in Vancouver the figure is 17 percent.
This trend isn’t new. In fact, it’s been an embedded feature of Canada’s economic landscape for decades.
Analysis released in October by the Conference Board of Canada showed that people who emigrated to Canada between 1991 and 2014 made just 83 percent of the average Canadian salary. And that rule is consistent throughout the labour market: high-skilled immigrant workers as well as low-skilled suffer from a significant pay disadvantage when compared to their Canadian colleagues.
The most common explanation for the so-called ‘immigrant wage gap’ is language. The evidence from the census suggests that immigrants who don’t speak English or French as a first language will have a harder time finding permanent, well-paid work than immigrants who do.
But language is only part of the story. Another key factor is how Canadian employers assess the skills and experience of prospective hires on the basis of where they come from, with immigrant workers from outside the US and Europe facing significant mark-downs in terms of their employability.
“Experience obtained in a labour market outside of Canada, in particular non-European [markets], is essentially valued at zero,” says Professor David Green, who runs the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia.
“Suppose you look at two people who have the same education, but one has five years of experience and one has twenty, but in both cases it was obtained in Pakistan, they’re both being given the same wage.”
This reflects a broader – and well documented – pattern of discrimination in Canadian employment practices.
In 2013, Liberal MP Ahmed Hussen called for a ‘blind recruitment’ policy – literally, removing names from job applications – to be implemented in the Canadian public sector after analysis confirmed that people from visible minority backgrounds made-up just 14 percent of civil service staff, despite accounting for around 20 percent of Canada’s overall population.
“It is crucial that Canadians who have got the grades, skills, and the determination succeed,” Ahmed, who is now the federal Immigration Minister, said at the time. A pilot version of the policy is currently underway in Ottawa.
The range of obstacles faced by immigrants in the Canadian jobs market pushes new arrivals into work that they are overqualified for, and that offers sub-standard pay and conditions.
We see this often – the taxi driver who was a doctor back in Haiti; the condo security guard who was an engineer back in Sri Lanka; or the young Vietnamese woman working in a nail salon who was studying to be a nurse in Vietnam.
Dr Kendra Strauss, who is the director of the Labour Studies Program at Simon Fraser University, adds an extra layer of analysis to this phenomenon. She believes that the fact that immigrants are less likely to join a trade union or labour organization leaves them at an additional disadvantage.
“Immigrants in Canadian society, at least initially, have less voice and less power as a political constituency,” she says.
“They are likely to work in sectors that have low levels of unionization, or to be involved in part-time, insecure, contract or temporary agency work, which doesn’t lend itself to unionisation, because [they] are not permanent. So the avenues that immigrants have for exercising their rights are a little bit more limited.”
The persistence of the immigrant wage gap could pose a challenge to the Liberal government’s long-term growth strategy. Canada’s population is aging, and Justin Trudeau plans to attract more than one million new immigrants into the country between now and 2020, at least 60 percent of which will be in the economic class.
But that growth might struggle to materialize if immigrants – who now represent 21.9 percent of all Canadian residents – continue to earn well below the average Canadian wage.