Rafael Pernía immigrated to Canada from Venezuela. Photo courtesy of Pernía

For immigrants, hard work isn’t optional

Our strong work ethic is a matter of survival.

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Last May, in the wake of the Cargill outbreak, Premier Jason Kenney posted a video on Twitter showing his support for the immigrant community, highlighting what seemed to be the most valuable contribution of immigrants to Alberta: a strong work ethic.

When newcomers arrive in Canada they start a new life. A life in which some are not only able to escape war and unimaginable risks, but a life full hope, full of promise.

It is true that Canada offers some of the highest standards of living in the world, a multicultural country proud of its diversity, and that Canadians are lovely, caring, friendly people—who also apologize a lot.

But even in Canada, life is not a fairytale for many immigrants.

Uprooting one’s life to a different country, to a different culture, is not something to take lightly. An immigrant myself, it took me several years to fully realize the complexity of my undertaking.

Newcomers not only have to adjust to this promising new life, but also to a new identity imposed by the host community: the hard-working immigrant. And for many newcomers, this is precisely where the fairytale turns sour.

Settling for less

Upon arrival, many immigrants believe that their credentials and qualifications are the key to meaningful employment. That maybe they’ll have to take a survival job temporarily, but they will eventually return to the professional position they had in their former life. Even if not in an equivalent role, they hope they will be employed in their field of expertise, at the very least.

According to Meenakshi Lamba, newcomer employment lead at Immigrant Services Calgary (ISC), it can take between six months to a year before a newcomer finds a job in their field. But it can take years before they return to their pre-immigration level, if it happens at all.

People coming from a professional background look for professional work and sometimes they even want to start at the same or higher level.

Meenakshi Lamba,

newcomer employment lead, ISC

“People coming from a professional background look for professional work and sometimes they even want to start at the same or higher level,” explained Lamba in an email. “Their expectations are sometimes higher than people coming under other streams.”

These expectations are not unfounded. Over 60% of new Canadians immigrate via Express Entry, a point-based system that weighs heavily educational attainment and language proficiency. So for a family in which both parents speak English and have a bachelor’s degree, the promise of a better life Canada looks like an attainable feat.

That’s what Rafael Pernía and his young family expected when they landed in Canada from Venezuela in 2015. They immigrated via the Federal Skilled Worker program (predecessor of the Express Entry stream) which gave him points for his experience as a construction manager in Venezuela, a then in-demand occupation listed by the Alberta government.

Both he and his wife are licensed architects in Venezuela, and although they didn’t expect to get a job in their field immediately, they didn’t expect it to be a difficult process either.

“As soon as I arrived I applied for construction manager positions,” Pernía said, “I also applied for superintendent, and for all of those roles that are below construction manager.”

I thought it was going to be for a short time… but I worked at Tims for almost two years.

Rafael Pernía

But even though he applied for more than 80 positions, he didn’t get a single interview.

“Maybe employers were confused by my applications due to my experience in both construction management and as an architect. Maybe they suspected that I was lying... people here don’t seem to understand that in Latin America we [architects] do everything.”

Upon arrival, he also applied for what he thought would be a temporary job at Tim Hortons. He got the job immediately.

“I thought it was going to be for a short time,” he recounted, “but I worked at Tims for almost two years.” After his stint at Tim Hortons, Pernía moved on to a night job stocking shelves at Walmart, so that during the day he could look after his three children while his wife worked at Superstore.

Underutilizing immigrants’ skills

The gaps between education and income indicate that many new Canadians are not only employed outside their professional field of expertise, but they’re also underemployed and underpaid.

Like Pernía and his wife, more than half of new Canadians hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, yet they are overrepresented in low-paying occupations in the service sector. It’s these low-paying industries that seem to recognize what’s perceived as the primary value of newcomers: a strong work ethic.

“We know that our Alberta immigration minister, Jason Copping, and our government are doing a lot of work,” said Anila Lee Yuen, president and CEO of the Centre for Newcomers. She pointed specifically to the Fair Registration Practices Act, which became law in March.

“The intent is to ensure that all the different associations or regulatory bodies… that they are using their practices to ensure that they are providing the right resources and assistance to newcomers… so that they can start working.”

University-educated immigrants in Alberta have to wait up to 10 years before they earn $30 an hour.

Beyond credential recognition, many immigrants struggle to find a job outside hospitality, warehousing and manufacturing. In Calgary, according to data provided by Immigrant Services Calgary, most transitional jobs are in retail or warehouses.

But the length of this “transition” period is often between 5 and 10 years. Data shows that it can take up to 10 years to close the wage gap between newcomers and those in Canada. This means that, in average, university-educated immigrants in Alberta have to wait up to 10 years before they earn $30 an hour.

“Despite the fact that these new immigrants have the same education as their Canadian-born counterparts (or have higher equivalent experience levels), research has shown that they still encounter disadvantages in the job market,” Lamba noted.

Hard work is not a choice

Although employers often attribute precarious employment to a lack of language fluency, “the majority of newcomers that are coming to Canada speak English already or speak French already,” said Lee Yuen.

“The biggest barrier that we always seem to overcome is this notion that Canadian work experience equals the only kind of experience that you can have.”

Moving to a new country means people leave behind their social capital, their reputation. So when people land a job—any job—they must work hard to earn a good reference, to climb up the career ladder and move closer to the life they dreamed of.

It is in the quest for Canadian experience where the immigrant’s work ethic is born.

When you’re an immigrant, the expectation of hard work makes the work even harder.

“I think that comes from systemic barriers that are there for marginalized communities—not only ethnocultural communities, but any marginalized community in terms of feeling like there’s more scrutiny, and quite frankly, there’s more to lose.” Lee Yuen said.

People will say to us, This is much better than what we have to deal with back home. It might be illegal, but at least I’m safer than I was.’

Anila Lee Yuen,

President and CEO, Centre for Newcomers

Armed with a PhD in public policy and governance, Maxine Parris moved to Calgary from Scotland in 2014. As is often suggested to newcomers, she volunteered, both at the Women’s Centre and her community association.

Her work as a volunteer was highly valued, as long as it was free, she says.

Cora Tahum came from the Philippines in 2002. Before becoming a full-time mom, she worked as a healthcare aide at a long-term care facility where she faced discrimination from both residents and coworkers.

“People at the long-term care care facility prefer white caregivers… ‘get out of my room, I don’t wanna see your face,’” she described.

Although residents can refuse care, caregivers can’t refuse to look after a rude individual.

“You can trade duties with a coworker if they want, and if a supervisor allows you to change assignments,” Tahum said. For this reason, she was often assigned to do tasks that didn’t include direct contact with a resident. “We’re both the same healthcare aides, for example, but I feel like I have to do the heavy lifting.”

“I think they [employers] expect you to be working longer, harder, heavier loads,” Tahum said.

Beyond ‘tolerable’ work conditions

When immigrants are victims of racism and discrimination, when they’re forced to fulfill unreasonable expectations, why don’t they speak up?


“People coming from marginalized positions… don’t want to have to do with any scrutiny that might come to them, that might be higher to them because the repercussions that might be larger,” Lee Yuen said, “because of fear of losing their job.”

“People will say to us, ‘This is much better than what we have to deal with back home. It might be illegal, but at least I’m safer than I was back home,’” she added.

Lee Yuen’s depiction rings true. “Back home you work from sunrise to sunset, planting rice, rain or shine, breaking your back,” Tahum said. “It’s a heavy labour job and you earn a little bit for a kilo of rice. So here, even if work is hard, you can say it’s tolerable... This is nothing compared to the hard work that I had to take back home.”

Echoing Tahum, when I asked Pernía why he was able to wait for a good job for so long, he responded: “I was happy working at Tim Hortons because I was doing better than I was in Venezuela.”

This is nothing compared to the hard work that I had to take back home.

Cora Tahum

But this is Canada.

Working conditions for immigrants shouldn’t be any different just because “things are worse” in our countries of origin. Skilled immigrants shouldn’t be relegated to the lower-paying jobs Canadians don’t want just because our degrees were granted abroad—especially when those degrees are the very reason many came to Canada.

When newcomers arrive in Canada, we bring more than a strong work ethic: We bring our hopes and our dreams for a better life. We’re willing to work as hard as we can to rebuild what we left behind, to create a new future for ourselves and for our children.

No employer should take advantage of that. Having a strong work ethic shouldn’t be a matter of survival.

Parris believes racism in Canada is about power hierarchies, and that’s reflected in the nature of the opportunities available to visible minorities and immigrants.

“They don’t want us to do the good jobs,” she asserted, while describing her frustrating experience doing jobs that didn’t use her skillset. As an immigrant of colour “you’re busting your ass and not getting anywhere,” Parris said.

But Pernía eventually did get somewhere. In the spring of 2018, after more than two years in survival jobs, both he and his wife found jobs where they could use their skills. He now works as a design drafter at an architecture firm, and she does interior design for a local custom home builder.

Ximena González is a freelance writer and editor based in Calgary. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, The Tyee, and Jacobin.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

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