Wanted: Reasonable accommodation in the job market
nearly invisible compared with the other aspects of the debate over what we’ve come to call reasonable accommodation, but it could well be more important: how well does Quebec accommodate new arrivals into its job market?
The question arises because a new study from Statistics Canada shows that Quebec has the worst immigrant unemployment record in Canada. The most recent immigrants – those here for five years or less – suffered a jobless rate of 17.8 per cent last year, or nearly three times the 6.3-per-cent rate of Canadian-born workers here.
By comparison, unemployment among recent immigrants in Ontario is 11 per cent compared with 4.4 per cent among the native-born. In British Columbia, the figures are 9.5 per cent and 3.7 per cent.
An extra dash of irony comes from the finding that these immigrants are actually more likely to have a university degree than native-born Canadians.
There’s no claim in this study that the employment problems of immigrants in Quebec have their roots in the same cultural insularity that has helped inflate the reasonable accommodation issue from a topic of polite discussion into front-page news and a favoured topic for talk-show shouters.
Indeed, the study’s author, Danielle Zietsma, is very careful not to draw any such broad conclusion, noting in an interview that it will be some time before she and her colleagues can do enough analysis to say much about the causes of this phenomenon.
Nevertheless, it would be surprising if there were no link at all. Quebec is far from unique in setting special, very high em- ployment hurdles for outsiders, but it does seem to favour a more extreme version of this sport than other provinces.
This is not only an injustice but a self-inflicted wound, since Quebec’s low birthrate and huge debt are combining to create a demographic bomb that’s on track to destroy this province’s high standard of living. One relief valve would be a bigger inflow of talented immigrants, but why should they come if it’s merely in order to be unemployed?
In an ideal world, the current yelling about veils and ceremonial daggers could usefully be expanded into a more civilized discourse focusing on this issue.
We could talk about the devaluation of allegedly inadequate foreign credentials, language tests that have little to do with professional performance and “Canadian experience” requirements that serve as an all-purpose excuse to lock out job applicants who don’t already have a job.
We might also talk about the invisible barriers that seem to trip up so many immigrant job seekers without even letting them know where they fell short.
To be fair, there’s plenty of such unpleasant game-playing right across Canada. A survey of recent immigrants in 2003 found that exactly the same percentage complained of certain obstacles in Quebec and across Canada.
In both cases, 26 per cent said their biggest employment problem was a demand for Canadian experience and 21 per cent said it was would-be employers who wouldn’t recognize foreign credentials or experience.
Ironically, the percentage who found language to be their worst problem was a bit lower in Quebec, at 13 per cent, than across Canada, where it was 15 per cent. One explanation could be that Quebec’s parallel immigration department does a careful job of pre-screening immigrants for competence in French.
But there’s another set of statistics strongly suggesting that unspoken barriers in Quebec are more impermeable than in other parts of the country.
Right across Canada, the immigrant job experience seems to get better as you look at those who’ve been here longer. This is logical, since they’ve had more years to learn about the job market and maybe get some local experience or training.
But this improvement is a lot smaller in Quebec than it is in other provinces with big immigrant populations.
I drew this conclusion after comparing the unemployment rates of two groups of immigrants: those in Canada for up to five years and those who’ve been here between five and 10 years.
The earlier immigrants have an unemployment rate in British Columbia that’s 46 per cent lower than that of recent immigrants and quite close to that of the Canadian-born.
In Ontario, their jobless rate is 36 per cent lower than that of recent immigrants, although it’s still 59 per cent higher than for Canadian-born Ontarians.
In Quebec, unemployment for earlier immigrants is just 25 per cent lower than for the most recent. And it remains 112 per cent higher than for Canadian-born Quebecers.
You could theorize that Quebec’s problem is simply that its unemployment rate is higher than those of Ontario or British Columbia, making it harder for newcomers to break in.
This would be a reasonable guess, but it’s contradicted by the experience of Nova Scotia, which has higher unemployment than Quebec. Nevertheless, its most recent immigrants lagged behind native-born job seekers less than in any other province.
Better still, those in Canada for at least five years are actually more likely to have a job than native-born Nova Scotians.
How can this be? One possibility, suggests Zietsma, could be that the provincial government actively tries to prevent immigrant unemployment with a program that helps would-be immigrants find local jobs even before they apply for landed status.