Immigrants in the Canadian Labour Market

Immigrants in the Canadian Labour Market

Karen Lok Yi Wong

According to findings of Statistics Canada, immigrants overall perform less well than those born in Canada: lower earnings, lower employment rates and higher unemployment. I argue that poorer economic performance of immigrants is a result of discrimination in the labour market, especially from the employers. Visible minority immigrants are particularly vulnerable to discrimination because they face discrimination not only in relation to their immigrant status, but also as a visible minority.

One may ask “Why is the fact that Immigrants perform less well, in the labour market, than native-born Canadian a special case when is not an uncommon phenomenon in the world in general?” According to the United Nations, Canada is traditionally and consistently one of the countries with a high number of immigrants. Immigrants also account for a large proportion of population of Canada. Referring to the data of Statistics Canada in 2011, about one in five Canadians are foreign-born. Most immigrants of Canada are skilled immigrants. The general attitude of Canadians towards immigrants is consistently positive. In a country like Canada where a large proportion of population are immigrants of whom many are highly skilled and where the general attitude of the public towards the immigrants is positive, it could be seen a surprising that immigrants still consistently do less well in the labour market. I would argue that discrimination toward immigrants in the labour market is subtle but it does exit. I will further discuss these subtle aspects of discrimination below.

A Report by Royal Bank of Canada suggested that immigrants in general have higher education level than those born in Canada, however, they have poorer economic performance. One explanation is that immigrants’ foreign educational qualifications are less recognized than Canadian ones. Foreign education is less valued by employers. Visible minority immigrants are even more affected than non-visible minority immigrants. For instance, among immigrants whose education was degree level, or above, the difference in earnings was not found when immigrants had been educated in the UK or the US, but was found if they were from other countries, particularly countries outside Europe.

Some may argue that the poorer economic performance of immigrants is not attributable to discrimination but to the problem, for employers, of assessing foreign educational qualifications – Employers just do not know which foreign qualifications are equivalent to Canadian ones. The foreign qualifications of visible minority immigrants are considered to be even more difficult to assess than non-visible minority immigrants. While non-visible minority immigrants often come from countries that have education systems which are similar to that found in Canada whereas visible minority immigrants often come from countries where education systems, at least appear, to have greater differences. However, there are many agencies which assess foreign qualifications, including those which are obtained from countries where visible minority immigrants come from, but these services are seldom used by employers. This could suggest that employers are not interested in assessing the potential of immigrant employees in the first place.

Even if immigrants’ education is properly recognized, they still have poorer economic performance. While there are many programmes offered by universities which help immigrants to bridge their foreign professional qualifications to the Canadian ones, many immigrants who participate in these programmes eventually find that even if their qualifications are recognized, they still have difficulty finding jobs which match their qualifications. Even if they find jobs which match their qualifications, their occupational mobility is lower than their native-born counterparts.

The requirement to have prior Canadian work experience, emphasized by many employers, is also discriminatory to immigrants. While getting Canadian work experience is not difficult for native-born before entering the permanent full-time labour market through, for example, internship programmes during education, it could be very difficult for many immigrants. Some may argue that it is legitimate for employers to emphasize Canadian work experience because employees need knowledge of the Canadian context in order to be competent to do their jobs and such knowledge is often acquired through work experience in Canada. However, even if this argument is legitimate, if immigrants are unable to acquire Canadian work experience beforehand, employers should have the responsibility to think of the alternatives. For example, employers could offer mentorship programmes which help immigrants to gain knowledge of the Canadian labour market and in relation to specific jobs from their mentors.

Because of different forms of discrimination against immigrants in the labour market, immigrants are unable to compete with the rest of the population on the same footing this results in keen job competitions among immigrants. Many immigrants are then concentrated in low paid employment with little mobility but higher instability or in insecure self-employment.


Karen Lok Yi Wong @karenwonglokyi2 was trained in social policy at University of York, England and as a social worker at UBC, Canada. She is a registered social worker in BC. Her interests include social policy, social work, immigration, older adults and family caregiving.