Strict requirements for newcomers to meet “Canadian experience” norms are discriminatory and can only be used in rare circumstances, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has said.
Setting out its new policy Monday on removing the barrier, the OHRC found that many newcomers turn to unpaid work such as volunteering, internships or low-skilled “survival jobs” to meet the requirement for Canadian experience.
“Ontario attracts highly-skilled immigrants from all over the world but if they have to meet a requirement for Canadian experience, they are in a very difficult position – they can’t get a job without Canadian experience and they can’t get experience without a job,” Barbara Hall, OHRC Chief Commissioner, said at the launch of the new policy. “In most cases, that is discrimination under Ontario’s Human Rights Code.”
Several prominent community voices at the launch said there was no common understanding of this unusual “self-invented” barrier found only in Canada as the concept of “American” or “European” experience did not exist.
‘Overt label for covert discomfort’
Tracing down the origin of the concept in Canada, Prof. Izumi Sakamoto, University of Toronto, said it first surfaced in 1973 in a letter sent to the Globe and Mail by an aggrieved woman.
“The term Canadian Experience has become a euphemism to convey lack of trust in a newcomer job applicant. It is an overt label for covert discomfort among employers,” said Sakamoto, the principal investigator of the Beyond Canadian Experience Project. “We are all implicated if we don’t challenge the concept and strive to use the new policy to make Canada a more inclusive place.”
A recent University of British Columbia (UBC) study found that local employers value Canadian work experience over international work experience. In a 2003 report, Statistics Canada identified a lack of Canadian experience as the most common barrier for newcomers looking for meaningful employment. The report said the barrier continued to exist two years after their arrival.
“We welcome this new policy,” said Bill Thomas, Chief Executive Officer and Senior Partner, KPMG. His professional services company partnered with the OHRC in putting out the policy. “Businesses that invest in newcomers benefit from the skills and rich experience they have to offer and in return, become more competitive in today’s global economy,” Mr. Thomas said.
The new policy sets out the OHRC’s position that employers and regulatory bodies need to ask about all of a job applicant’s previous work – where they got their experience does not matter. The policy also tells employers and regulatory bodies how to develop practices, policies and programs that do not result in discrimination.
“Newcomers now have the law behind them to fight discrimination based on the work experience norm,” said Errol Mendes, an OHRC commissioner. The OHRC will be collecting employment data to detect patterns, Mr. Mendes said. “Data combined with public inquiries and complaints will hopefully help remove this subtle barrier”.
Depressing experiences and statistics
Last fall, the OHRC consulted newcomers to Canada in the last 10 years about their experiences looking for jobs in Ontario since their arrival. Responses to the OHRC’s survey show that many newcomers turn to unpaid work or “survival jobs” – low-skill work outside of their field of expertise – to meet the requirement for Canadian experience.
Two of the survey respondents wrote:
“It took me a very long time to find a job and the one that I finally got was due to my many, many months of continuous hard work and long hours as a volunteer. The work I do now has nothing to do with what I went to college for. It was sad, depressing and a financially-draining struggle for me.”
“The main reason that they cited [in support of their decision not to hire me] is lack of Canadian experience. I have all the qualifications and over 12 years of experience in a multi-cultural and fast-paced work environment, and I feel that I have good communication skills too. I have even offered to work without wages for a few weeks so that they can judge me and my work. I have started getting frustrated and am planning to go back. They say they need skilled workers but don’t recognize your overseas experience.”
These sample reactions echo what a British Columbia human rights tribunal observed: “It cannot be in anyone’s interest to continue to accept into this country some of the best and brightest individuals from around the world, and to then make it virtually impossible for them to use the skills that they bring with them.”
Statistics Canada reported that between 1991 and 2006, “the proportion of immigrants with a university degree in jobs with low educational requirements (such as clerks, truck drivers, salespersons, cashiers, and taxi drivers) increased.” The numbers pointed out that even after being in Canada for 15 years, “immigrants with a university degree are still more likely than the native-born to be in low-skilled jobs.”
Ratna Omidvar, Maytree Foundation President, said the Canadian experience requirement is being used as a proxy for mitigating risk “by our risk-averse and rules-based society.” The OHRC document is a “way for moving the conversation and create further appetite for evidence-based policy,” Ms. Omidvar said.
The OHRC policy states that newcomers, employers and Canadian society at large suffer untold losses when people are not able to work to their full capacity. “And, if Canada is seen as a place where it is impossible to find a good job, a job in your field, or where, as an engineer or a Ph.D. graduate you are likely to end up driving a taxi, it will no longer be a desirable destination for many of the world’s most skilled immigrants. They will simply choose to go elsewhere.”
Another cause for major concern pointed out by an audience member at the policy launch was the “bastard child” of Canadian experience: employers asking job agencies to supply them with free labour from the pool of desperate job seekers keen to gain the elusive experience. “They do not absorb these workers at the end of the usual three-month period. Instead, they ask for another fresh batch of free labour to perpetuate this cycle of exploitation,” the member pointed out and urged the need to tighten the concept of internship. – New Canadian Media