The pandemic has shown that immigrants are an indispensable part of our work force – but they have more to offer

Adwoa K. Buahene is chief executive officer of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council. She is the Leadership Lab columnist for October, 2020.

Many of us know that immigration is a key driver of Canada’s population and economic growth, with immigrants constituting more than 25 per cent of the country’s work force.

Yet immigrants have been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of job losses. For a successful postpandemic recovery, Canada needs to re-engage this immigrant population to stoke our economic engine to building prosperity across Canada.

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Prosperity will happen because of immigrant contributions in the labour market. Front-line workers with an immigrant background have been critical to our country’s efforts to contain the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and support at risk-groups, such as seniors in long-term care homes. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 36 per cent of the nurse aides and patient service associates responding to outbreaks in long-term care are immigrants.

However, the health care sector is far from fully capitalizing on the competencies and experience of these employees. Many new Canadians working in long-term care facilities have a bachelor’s degree, higher than the required qualification level for such roles, making them examples of newcomers with health care backgrounds who are underutilized in the labour market. Canada could step up its efforts to respond to the pandemic if these immigrant professionals had the opportunity to work in roles that actually match their qualifications and experience.

Even before the pandemic, new Canadians were vulnerable to unemployment and underemployment. COVID-19 has exacerbated these vulnerabilities – with the number of newcomers in employment plummeting by 22.6 per cent from February to May.

Race and gender are often additional factors to immigrants’ chances of finding employment. Women, in general, have been more likely to lose their jobs or face decreased hours during the pandemic than men – and when adding an intersectional lens, immigrant women have been disproportionately further affected. Newcomer women must navigate adapting to a new country and undertaking a disproportionate share of household and child-care duties, while finding their footing in an increasingly volatile job market.

With the economic impact of COVID-19 likely to linger for years to come, Canadian businesses need the skills and capacity for innovation that immigrant professionals of all genders and backgrounds contribute. This requires a holistic set of interventions and supports by policy makers and employers, from increasing access to child care and making flexible work policies possible, to acknowledging the value of international work experience and streamlining licensing for those in regulated professions. Employers simply bridging the wage and employment gap between immigrant and the Canadian-born employees would add up to $50-billion to the economy.

Another misconception is that embracing newcomer talent comes at the cost of “local” talent, especially in times of financial downturn. Thankfully, this is not a zero-sum game, but one where all Canadians – new and old – prosper. The various skill sets and international perspectives that new Canadians offer bolster the local work force, helping to spur businesses and job growth as they become taxpayers, consumers and entrepreneurs.

Canada should remember that the cultural diversity that immigrants offer is good for business and innovation. Ensuring inclusion in any recovery effort is smart. Continuing immigration policies that actively increase numbers and capitalizing on the permanent residents and newcomer Canadians that already live in our municipalities will allow us emerge from the pandemic faster and stronger.

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Adwoa K. Buahene is CEO of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC).


This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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