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Studies reveal immigrant workers at higher risk of injury, mental illness

By Mari-Len De Guzman

Recent studies by the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) have revealed some serious workplace heath and safety-related issues being experienced by immigrant workers in Canada.

One study found serious gaps in injury reporting and access to the workers’ compensation system among new immigrant workers; while another showed immigrant workers working “survival jobs” are more likely to suffer mental health issues over a period of time.

According to the IWH study titled, Delicate Dances: Immigrant Workers’ Experiences of Injury Reporting and Claim Filing, newcomers to Canada are facing unique challenges in the area of occupational health and safety compared to their Canadian-born counterparts.

The qualitative study examined the experiences of new immigrant workers after a work-related injury, interviewing 28 injured workers who are newcomers to Canada and 14 service providers, focusing specifically on injury reporting and claim filing.

Some of the issues resulted from lack of training, language difficulties and lack of knowledge about their rights as workers, said Marni Lifshen, a research associate at IWH and co-author of the study.

Lifshen said the workers they interviewed for the study reported difficulties finding work in their field because of lack of Canadian job experience. As a result, these workers end up in “survival jobs” for which they are overqualified.

“It’s the classic cliché: if you were trained as an engineer or a physician, perhaps, and then you ended up working in manufacturing, you may not be familiar with the tools and the equipment that you’re using in your new job; that the work pace and the physical conditions of the work at the new job could be more physically demanding than what you might have been used to in your home country,” Lifshen said.

Lifshen cited an earlier IWH study that found new immigrant workers are more likely, within five years of arriving in Canada, to be working in physically demanding jobs, less likely to be members of a union, and are more likely to be injured at work.

But what happens after a newcomer worker is injured on the job? Not much, really, according to the IWH study.

Unreported injuries

Although almost all the workers interviewed said they told their employer or health-care provider about their work-related injury, such reporting seldom led to claim filing and compensation.

“Workers said that often their employer — either deliberately or not deliberately —misinformed the worker about his or her rights, directed the worker to go outside for assistance” such as Employment Insurance or social assistance, rather than pointed them to the WSIB process, Lifshen said.

Many new immigrant workers are often unaware of their rights under occupational health and safety or workers’ compensation laws, making it easier for their employer to dismiss any claims management that should have been done.

The IWH study also found that newcomers to Canada get very little information about Canada’s workplace health and safety and workers’ compensation system when they first get here.

Lifshen acknowledged this gap may be due to the fact that as a newcomer to Canada, immigrants have to process so many different information about their settlement — how to obtain a health card, how to find housing, how to acquire a social insurance number, how to get a job, etc. — that OHS information gets pushed down to the bottom of the list of priorities.

Language availability is another problem.

“We found that there was a reasonable amount of OHS resources available to newcomers to Canada but often that material was only available in English or French,” Lifshen said. “Whereas in general, a good third of people who immigrate to Canada — between 30 and 35 per cent — don’t have language ability in English or French.”

A pilot project is currently underway to attempt to bridge this gap. With funding from the WSIB Research Council and in partnership with other organizations like Safe Workplaces Promotion Services of Ontario, Workers’ Health and Safety Centre, and Skills for Change — an immigrant settlement agency operating in the Greater Toronto Area — IWH has developed a package of OHS and workers’ compensation resources for newcomers to Canada that will be delivered through Skill for Change.

The information tool aims to help inform new immigrant workers about their rights as worker in Canada.

Lifshen admits, however, that information alone will not be enough to protect the workers from the hazards of the workplace. “Workers need to actually be protected and feel protected in their job. Many workers didn’t feel protected even if they, for example, knew that legally they… shouldn’t be fired for being injured and things like that.”

Mental health

Physical hazards and injury reporting are not the only issues facing new immigrants in the workplace, however. If another IWH study is any indication, immigrant workers in Canada are also facing increased risk of mental illness.

IWH researchers analyzed data from Statistics Canada’s Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada, which included employed immigrants who had worked before coming to Canada and were in good health upon their arrival. They were interviewed three times during the four years after they first arrived and were asked questions about their general and mental health. One of the questions asked if they experienced any emotional problems such as “persistent feelings of sadness, depression or loneliness” in the previous 12 months. A total of 2,685 immigrants were included in the sample.

The results of this four-year survey were analyzed by IWH and researchers found that those immigrants who were “overqualified” for their job reported a decline in their mental health. Workers were considered overqualified when the skills required in their current job in Canada were lower than their level of education or their previous work before arriving in Canada.

“We found that four years after coming to Canada as a new immigrant, close to 59 per cent of immigrants were overqualified for their jobs based on their education level,” said Cynthia Chen, a researcher at IWH. “Also, roughly 43 per cent of the people didn’t work on the job they expected they will be (working based) on their skill level when they decided to come to Canada.”

Chen said this is a vital issue that is not only affecting the immigrant population, but also has a ripple effect on the Canadian economy and health-care system, with immigrants making up a huge part of the country’s labour force.

The IWH recommends improvements to the immigration system so that would-be immigrants or those contemplating immigration to Canada are given sufficient and realistic information about the country’s labour market. This will allow them to make a more informed decision and have a more practical expectation about their settlement.

“Canadian immigration policy selects highly skilled, healthy immigrants to be admitted into this country,” Chen said. “Without proper recognition and use of their foreign educational credentials and work experiences, it is unlikely that new immigrants will achieve their potential in the Canadian labour market.”

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