Immigrants in the Global Economy

Precarious Employment and the Transnational Dimensions of Economic Incorporation

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Research Problematic

In our research we set out to understand how recent immigrants are faring in the new economy in terms of their employment experiences, strategies for family livelihood, and broader socio-economic incorporation in Canadian and home country institutions.

Current scholarship and policy prescriptions for immigrant labour market performance and socio-economic incorporation are based on the trajectories of mobility set by earlier immigrant cohorts including: (1) European immigrants who came to Canada during the industrial boom of the post-World War II era; and, (2) immigrants from southern Europe (Greece and Portugal) and from non-traditional source countries of the Global-South who immigrated to Canada in the seventies, a period of manufacturing sector growth and of welfare state expansion. Both of these cohorts experienced economic mobility, at least over time, with education and language as key determinants of their employment experiences.

Today’s immigrants are much more likely to encounter labour market difficulties in Canada’s “new” economy, regardless of their education, pre-migration work experience and language skills. Along with the Canadian-born population, immigrants to Canada now face precarious employment, income deterioration, and lower probabilities of occupational mobility in the long run. Research by academics, policy experts, and grassroots advocacy groups, points to the economic disadvantages faced by today’s newcomers. Their findings point to a mismatch between the education and skills of immigrants and available jobs; an increasing earnings gap between immigrants and native born workers with comparable human capital, and the racialization of income disparities and of poverty. While these trends are evident at aggregate levels, there is relatively little research on immigrant sub-populations defined by nationality, region or language group.

In 2005-06 we interviewed three hundred Latin American and English-speaking Caribbean immigrant workers in the GTA using a mixed-method questionnaire. We asked our respondents questions about why and how they migrated to Canada, their early settlement experience and particularly their relationship with local settlement service institutions, their early work experience and the strategies they developed to stabilize and improve their employment situation; we also asked these immigrant workers about the quality of their jobs, the conditions in which they worked and whether and how they have managed to secure a reasonable livelihood for their families.

We situate the trajectories of incorporation and labour market insertion of newcomers in Canada within a global framework. When we began our research we identified four contextual shifts that help explain the current trend towards immigrant social exclusion and differential economic incorporation, as well as some of the ways in which immigrant families are responding to this situation. First, the ‘new knowledge economy’ with its reliance on information and communications technology and shift away from manufacturing towards the service sector has transformed Canadian labour markets. There has been a growth in high- and low-wage occupations but significant loss in middle-income jobs, and changes in the organization and regulation of work, with a rise in non-standard and increasingly precarious employment. In this context, immigrants’ labour market experiences are part of a broader trend towards precarious work. Second, there have been significant changes in the role of the state and the public sector over the last decade. The call for fiscal restraint has led various levels of government to engage in budget cuts, devolution, decentralization, privatisation, outsourcing, and municipal amalgamation. Newcomers are particularly vulnerable to cuts in social welfare, settlement services, ESL for children and adults, and funding for private voluntary and community organizations, especially those dealing with immigrant and refugee settlement. Third, Canadian immigration policy has evolved in line with the labour market demands of the new economy. There has been a continued focus on attracting and selecting educated and skilled newcomers – the best and brightest – who enter as permanent residents and are later eligible for citizenship. Temporary worker programmes, most of which make migrants ineligible to become permanent residents, have also increased and are now the fastest growing immigrant entrance category. Humanitarian concerns, which provide for the admission of refugees and asylum seekers, have decreased and the processing of refugees has been harmonized with the entry requirements applied to economic class entrants. Complex processing procedures and attendant delays, rising fees, greater security controls (e.g. DNA testing for family reunification) are all part and parcel of this shift. These changes suggest that the cornerstones of the Canadian immigrant system -- permanent settlement, prompt family reunification, and eventual citizenship – are being eroded. Fourth, there is a growing tendency among newcomers to maintain multi-dimensional ties to their home country. Analysts point to host-country negative racialization, disadvantageous economic incorporation, and legal limbos in immigration status as a motivation for maintaining transnational ties. Facing economic, legal and social uncertainties, migrants orient significant aspects of their economic, social, cultural and political lives around their country of origin; they send family remittances, invest their savings in their country of origin, send their children home to be cared for by kin, participate in home country politics, etcetera. At the same time, immigrants who achieve advantageous economic incorporation may also be motivated to retain economic and political ties with their home countries.

Research Questions

The current context of globalization—whether associated with blocked mobility options for immigrants in the host society or with the proliferation of economic connections with places of origin—calls for a reconceptualization of immigrant economic incorporation, one that takes into account both (a) local labour market conditions of precarious employment and restrictive immigration policies, and (b) the potentially multi-local and transnational frame of reference immigrants draw on to make decisions about their employment prospects and family resource management options.

Based on existing research on immigrant labour market experiences, and taking into account the global context that we argue frames immigrant employment possibilities, we set out to answer a core set of research questions:

Situating Ourselves Conceptually

Our research strategy for understanding contemporary immigrant employment experiences began as a dialogue with scholarship on precarious work. The concept of precarious work – understood as non-standard employment relationships that deviate from the full-time, stable employment relationship – poses contingent work as the local face of the new global economy that affects all workers. Research on precarious work has relied on available secondary sources and specially designed surveys that focus on employment conditions to document and analyse trends in precarious employment. Gender and racialisation have received considerable attention in this literature. However, the experience of newcomer immigrants and refugees has been understudied, perhaps based on the limitations of available data. Our data allow us to specify the modes and determinants of precarious work for immigrants. The data also offer a basis for conducting a dynamic analysis of how immigrants respond to precarious employment both within the realm of work (for example, the search for stable employment, or the combination of multiple jobs to complete a living wage) and in terms of securing a livelihood for their families (for example, the transnational circulation of resources and family members). Our data also provide information at more than one point in time, allowing us to compare experiences and strategies used during early settlement with those used at the time of the survey.

In the process of conducting our fieldwork we held dialogues with local community agencies and immigrant organizations, which led us to incorporate a second concept into our framework. We consider it useful to draw on the concept of social inclusion as an effective bridge between social research and social policy. In Canada and Europe the idea of social inclusion is posed not only as a counter to the notion of social exclusion but also to refer proactively to a process of closing physical, social and economic distances separating people. It is a multi-dimensional concept that includes a concern with value recognition, human development, involvement and engagement, proximity and material well-being.

The complexity of immigrant strategies for navigating the ‘new economy’ and the implications of their choices for social cohesion and social citizenship make the concept of social inclusion particularly relevant. The economic decision making of immigrant families must also be situated within a complex of institutions, obligations and obstacles that frame their options or lack thereof. We refer to this immigrant navigation process using the concept of differential social inclusion and offer the following heuristic model for capturing the process.

Our project bridges research on immigrant incorporation conducted with a transnational optic and studies of precarious employment. It contributes to knowledge in these areas and underscores the importance of conducting dynamic, multi-level, mixed-method research.


This project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).