Immigrant workers experience different health and safety issues

Published: August 10, 2008

If you live and work in a Canadian city, you likely interact with people who were born in other countries. It’s not only the largest centres such as Toronto – where nearly every second person is an immigrant – that attract newcomers. Even in smaller cities such as Windsor, Calgary, Winnipeg and Kitchener, between 20 and 25 per cent of residents were born elsewhere, according to Canada’s 2006 Census.

Yet, immigrants often experience poorer conditions when they go off to work compared with their neighbours who were born in Canada, even years after settling here. These findings emerged from two new studies by researchers at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). The topic is growing increasingly relevant, as each year more than 225,000 new immigrants arrive in Canada and more than half of them are skilled workers.

Most studies on immigrant workers have focused on their income, says Scientist Dr. Peter Smith, the lead researcher of both studies. But from a population health point of view, we need to look at working conditions in addition to earnings that can affect immigrants’ physical and mental health.

Overall working conditions worse

In their first study, Smith and co-author Dr. Cameron Mustard, IWH president, compared a dozen different work conditions between immigrants and Canadian-born workers.

We found that immigrants with five or fewer years in Canada are more likely to have higher qualifications than their jobs require, to have physically demanding jobs, and to work fewer hours than they want to, says Smith. Some immigrants fare worse in these situations: those from a visible minority, whose mother tongue is not English, or whose advanced degrees are from outside Canada.

Results from this study were presented at Statistics Canada’ s Socio-economic Conference in May, 2008. The findings were based on interviews with more than 76,000 workers, from four waves of Statistics Canada’s Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID) between 1993 and 2002.

From the survey, the researchers looked at a dozen factors that could affect health or safety . Among the conditions they studied were workers’ skills and responsibilities (Were they supervisors? Were they overqualified?), the type of work (Was the job physically demanding or did it require no special skills?), the amount of work (Did they work fulltime, hold multiple jobs or report underemployment?), and any protections that were part of their workplace (Was it unionized? Did they have non-wage employment benefits?).

In each case, they compared the situation reported by Canadian-born workers with immigrants at different stages after their arrival to Canada – in the first five years, from six to 10 years, from 11 to 20 years and from 21 years or more.

They found that the most recent immigrants, in their first five years, are also less likely to have supervisory responsibilities, to be unionized or have non-wage employment benefits.

The situation improves for those who have been in Canada between six and 10 years, but they are still 40 per cent more likely to be underemployed than Canadian-born workers. And even up to 20 years later, immigrants are less likely to receive non-wage benefits or be unionized.

What are the health implications of these differences?

Being overqualified for your job, for instance, is associated with declines in health, notes Smith. Limited access to non-wage benefits, such as disability insurance, may result in financial insecurity if a person is unable to work.

Medically treated injury rates double in men

Recent immigrant men are twice as likely to sustain workplace injuries that require medical care compared with Canadian-born men, according to the researchers’ other study .

This study was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine in July. Researchers analyzed information from more than 97,000 workers in the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) in 2003 and 2005.

Why is this rate so much higher in recent immigrant men? One explanation might be that they have more severe work injuries, possibly because they work in more hazardous settings, the researchers suggest. But there is a lack of information on immigrants’ work hazards, injury risks or injuries that did not require medical attention, which would help confirm this explanation. 

It is surprising that we know so little about this issue, given that immigrants will account for all labour force growth in Canada over the next five to six years, says Smith. Currently, provincial workers’ compensation agencies don’t collect information on the immigrant status of injured workers, and the surveys we looked at were not designed specifically to answer these questions.

To answer some of the questions raised by these findings, Smith and colleagues are examining the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada, which tracks more than 7,000 immigrants during their first four years in Canada. The IWH research done to date is also helping target the next series of questions that need to be answered.

Both of these studies were funded by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s Research Advisory Council.

Students examine OHS issues

In 2006, two of the Institute’s Syme Fellowships were awarded to doctoral students examining issues among temporary foreign workers and immigrant workers. Janet McLaughlin and Stephanie Premji are in the final stages of their PhD studies.

Each year, about 20,000 Mexican and Caribbean workers are part of Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. This program offers employment income for these workers, plus it provides a reliable source of labour for employers during the annual crop season.

University of Toronto student Janet McLaughlin discovered that these workers face challenges if they are injured during their temporary stays in Canada, which sometimes have serious implications for both their health and their families’ well-being.

As a medical anthropology student, McLaughlin immersed herself in lives of temporary foreign workers. She spent several summers living in the fertile Niagara Region of Ontario, where she made contact with hundreds of migrant workers, including contact with injured workers. From these connections, she spent two winters in Mexico and Jamaica, to study the effects of the injuries on workers’ families and community.

She identified several key health problems. One was symptoms often associated with pesticide exposure, such as skin rashes, red or blurry vision, throat irritations and breathing problems. Another was back pain and other musculoskeletal problems from repeated, heavy work.

While the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program offers benefits because workers are eligible for Canadian health care and workers’ compensation, in practice she found they were not always able to access these benefits for a number of reasons.

Under-reporting was common. The fear of being fired and sent home the next day is the main reason for underreporting – they desperately need the income, says McLaughlin, who saw such situations. I was stunned to hear the kind of pain they worked through. Workers fear they might not be eligible to return to the program if they are fired.

She also spoke to more than 60 government officials, health-care providers and employers, using semi-structured interviews. Many physicians were not aware that temporary foreign workers were eligible for workers’ compensation. There were also language barriers during treatment.

Back in their home countries, she saw workers who had been so badly injured they could not work, who had not received therapy or compensation. In some cases, their children would have to be pulled out of school to work, she says.

Workers do need this program, she points out, so one solution to encourage injury reporting might be a process in which workers can appeal if they are fired, and find a job with another employer.

The program works well overall and there are many good employers and healthy workers who return year after year to work, notes McLaughlin. But we can do better to protect those who experience problems.

Language, ethnic status can be issues

Imagine that you are being trained in the safe use of a piece of machinery at work – but you don’t speak the same language as the person training you. This is one of the ways that language can affect immigrants’ health and safety in their jobs.

Stephanie Premji, a PhD student at the University of Quebec at Montreal, sought to explore how certain characteristics of immigrants’ realities, such as their language skills or ethnic backgrounds, influence workplace safety issues. To find some answers, she did interviews with 25 immigrant garment workers in a Montreal factory.

Premji was also interested in how these issues played out on a broader scale. Do immigrants and non-immigrant minorities work in industries with a higher risk of injury, for instance? For this part of her PhD, she examined compensation claim information from Quebec’s workers’ compensation board (CSST) between 2000 and 2002, as well as Canadian 2001 Census data.

From her interviews at the garment factory, Premji found that occupational health and safety was affected in complex ways by language and other factors.  For instance, if workers needed a workstation adjustment or a piece of safety equipment, it was difficult for them to ask if they didn’t speak English or French fluently. But also, often, they simply weren’t aware that they could make such requests.

The lack of fluency also limited the possibility of building relationships with colleagues to deal with OHS issues, she says. And she did find that language affected safety training. Sometimes the trainer and the trainee didn’t speak the same language, she says. In such cases, hand signs were used to teach safety.

Premji also found that ethnic origin affected how work was done. A worker handing out fabric bundles would give the “easy” bundles – the smaller, lighter ones – to others from the same ethnic group.

The workers’ overall situation was also important. Some were working two or three jobs to make ends meet or send money to their families in their home countries, or taking English or French courses in their spare time – all of which contributed to fatigue on the job.

The other part of her research, examining compensation and Census information, also yielded some interesting findings.

Visible minorities in Montreal are more likely to work in jobs where the risk of lost-time compensation claims is higher, according to her research. This finding was also true of immigrant women. However, it doesn’t mean that these groups have more injuries, she says. Within specific jobs and tasks, there are factors that may influence their risk of injury.

Non-immigrants and non-visible minorities were less likely to work in such industries.

Premji will defend her thesis in August. In the late fall she will begin a post-doctorate at the University of California in San Francisco, under the supervision of Dr. Niklas Krause, who is on IWH’ s Scientific Advisory Committee.