Workplace Rights for Recent Immigrants

February 21, 2008

Boom times in BC are reflected in low unemployment rates and robust economic growth. But missing from that picture is the fact that some people are having a harder time earning a decent living than others. Among those people are recent immigrants.

Statistics Canada reports that, in 2006, very recent immigrants (people who have been in Canada five years or less) had the most difficulty integrating into the labour market. That’s in spite of the fact that they are more likely than the Canadian-born population to have a university education.

Why are recent immigrants to one of Canada’s most prosperous provinces finding economic security elusive at a time when immigration is becoming ever more important to the nation’s wellbeing? It’s a complex question, and a recently released study sheds some light on part of the puzzle.

Our study—Workplace Rights for Immigrants in BC—looks specifically at recent Filipino immigrants, and at how changes made in 2002 to BC’s Employment Standards Act affect their work experiences. The Employment Standards Act (ESA) sets out minimum working conditions — things like the minimum wage, hours of work, overtime pay, parental leave, and statutory holidays.

We surveyed and interviewed 130 recent Filipino immigrants. Their responses clearly indicate that instead of a settlement transition, they are facing a transition penalty — increasingly, they find themselves stuck in a low-wage job cycle, unable to find secure, well-paying work that reflects their professional qualifications and education. Many hold several jobs at once, patching together part-time and casual work in an effort to make a living.

These low-wage jobs not only involve tough working conditions, they often involve violations of safety and employment standards law. Many of those interviewed for our study were working in unsafe conditions, such as being required to operate dangerous machinery or handle hazardous chemicals without proper training. Most were not familiar with their rights under the Employment Standards Act, and those who had experienced violations of their rights were reluctant to report them.

These findings are not too surprising in light of the fact that, since 2002, the provincial government has dramatically reduced the monitoring of workplaces — monitoring that helped to ensure the minimum laws were being followed.

The government has also made it much harder for employees to report violations of the law. Employers are no longer required to post information about employment standards in every workplace. Moreover, a worker who feels that their rights have been violated (for example, if they weren’t paid what they were owed, or were forced to work without breaks) could contact the Employment Standards Branch of the provincial government, and get help. Now, you have to use a “self-help kit”, available only in English. To use the kit, you have to fill out a form, and take it to your employer. If this doesn’t work, only then are you allowed to ask for help from the government. Imagine reporting a robbery to the police, and being told you had a to fill out a form, take it to the thief, and ask for your property back, before the police would be willing to intervene.

For many immigrant workers, workplace rights have become “paper rights” only. We consulted with many immigrant-serving organizations, and together developed a number of recommendations. These changes would not solve all the problems experienced by recent immigrants, but if implemented by the BC government, they would go a long way to increasing their economic security. They include:

  • Eliminate the $6 first-job wage, and increase the minimum wage to $10 per hour.
  • Institute proactive monitoring teams who would randomly investigate workplaces for employment standards and safety violations. Increase penalties for violations.
  • Eliminate the “self-help kit” and allow workers to bring complaints about workplace violations directly to the Employment Standards Branch. Also, fund a community-based, non-profit system, which would provide assistance, including advocacy, to workers who believe their rights have been violated.
  • Substantially increase public education of the ESA through information sessions, translation into appropriate languages, and extensive distribution. Restore the requirement that rights be posted at workplaces.
  • Extend the minimum call-in period from two to four hours. Two hours of pay is inadequate, particularly when workers must commute long distances to get to the workplace.

In 2002, the provincial government said its changes to the Employment Standards Act would make it easier for employers to create more opportunities for BC workers. The reality is that too often they take the form of low-paying, insecure and unsafe employment, and many recent immigrants are bearing the brunt of reduced protections in the workplace. It is time for the government to take action and ensure that immigrants can work in decent, safe conditions.

Habiba Zaman is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at SFU. She, with Cecilia Diocson and Rebecca Scott, co-authored the study, Workplace Rights for Immigrants in BC: The Case of Filipino Workers, which is available at

The study is part of the Economic Security Project, a joint research initiative of the CCPA and Simon Fraser University, funded primarily by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). This study also received a grant from the Vancouver Foundation, which significantly facilitated the research process.