Research explores health and safety issues in immigrant workers

Published: February 10, 2007

For the third time this month, she’s received a flash burn from the machine. But rather than report it, she quietly nurses her wound and continues with her job. She doesn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker. The hours he works outside are long and he’s not getting enough sun protection or hydration, putting him at risk for several heat-related conditions. The problem is that he doesn’t know how to say this in English.

Workplace health and safety issues may have different implications when they involve immigrants, as illustrated by the cases described above. With an increasing immigrant population in Canada, this is becoming a growing area of research and policy attention. There hasn’t been much research on certain aspects of immigrants’ work, such as the types of occupations or industries they’re in, says Peter Smith, an associate scientist with the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). Some studies have looked at work injuries in the immigrant population, but they haven’t been of very high quality.

As immigrants are gradually comprising a larger proportion of the workforce, it becomes important to understand the particular issues they face. Between 1991 and 1996, immigrants accounted for 70 per cent of all labour force growth, according to Human Resources and Development Canada. In fact, immigrants are expected to account for almost all net growth in the Canadian labour force by 2011. Smith, along with IWH President Dr. Cameron Mustard, has received a grant from the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board to examine immigrant working conditions, primarily in Ontario, but also selectively throughout Canada. This work is commencing in 2007.

We’ll look at factors such as the availability of work for immigrants, how they obtain employment, the type of employment they obtain, and the risks posed in terms of physical and psychological demands of work, says Smith. We will also look at the injury rates of immigrants versus the Canadian-born population. The focus on Ontario is logical, explains Smith: according to the 2001 Census of Canada, 56 per cent of recent immigrants – defined as those who have been here five years or less – settled in Ontario.

Stéphanie Premji has also noted the lack of research in this area while completing her PhD at the University of Quebec in Montreal. Premji, who received a Syme Fellowship from IWH in 2006, is conducting a mixed method study. This approach combines quantitative information from the Quebec workers’ compensation board and the Census, and qualitative information from interviews of immigrant workers in a clothing factory in Montreal.

To date, Premji has preliminary findings from her qualitative work. One key issue she has observed is the language barrier. Couple that barrier with fear, and it creates complicated work situations. In the factory where I am conducting my research – unlike most workplaces employing immigrants – there is lots of information about recourse in the event of a work-related accident or illness, she says. But people don’t exercise their rights when they’re afraid. And they’re afraid because they don’t want to lose their jobs, and because of their other responsibilities. Those other responsibilities include second and even third jobs, plus sending money to family in their home countries. It’s important to understand the reality for immigrants – which can include precarious work situations, communication issues, family responsibilities and financial responsibilities – and how all of these aspects have an impact on their health, says Premji.

Janet McLaughlin, also an IWH Syme Fellow, is familiar with these issues as well. McLaughlin, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, is currently examining both physical and mental health concerns among workers through Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). This program employs some 20,000 Mexican and Caribbean migrant workers annually in farming and rural communities. My goal is to gain a broad and general understanding of various health problems experienced by workers, since these issues have remained largely unstudied among this population, she says. Some of these issues include hours of work, rest periods, access to protective clothing and gear, musculoskeletal problems, and exposure to the elements and agrochemicals. McLaughlin notes that some measures are being taken to address migrants’ working conditions.

In 2006, for the first time, Ontario farm workers, including migrant workers, were covered under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. This was an important first step in addressing health and safety concerns endemic to the agricultural sector, she says. It remains to be seen, however, how effective this act will be in protecting migrant workers, many of whom don’t speak English or are illiterate, tend to lack knowledge of their rights, and have no job security or mobility. All of this puts them in a particularly vulnerable position and limits their ability to stand up for better conditions. As a whole, the purpose of this research is to highlight common issues among this almost invisible working population, and bring them to light for legislators and governing bodies.