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Competing on Diversity?

Publié le 1 janvier, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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Canada’s immigration system attracts highly skilled workers to better compete in the global economy. Upon arrival in the country’s largest cities, however, immigrants find themselves ghettoized in highly racialized and gendered labour markets. A business-led campaign in Toronto to have foreign credentials recognized promotes an individualistic, market-based approach to the integration of immigrants that fails to address this group-based experience of economic marginalization.

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Immigration to Canada at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a predominantly urban phenomenon. About three quarters of all immigrants settle in the country’s three largest cities: Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. Nearly half of all immigrants settle in the Greater Toronto Area alone, which now has one of the largest foreign-born populations of any major city in the Western world.

While Toronto is often praised as a success story of multiculturalism and diversity, the city is showing signs of increasing socio-economic polarization along racial lines. Research demonstrates that poverty in Canadian cities correlates with immigration status. In Toronto alone, nearly thirty percent of families now live in poverty and many of these are immigrant families. Unemployment and underemployment are part of the everyday life experience of many immigrants in Toronto. Whereas earlier waves of immigrants to the city were absorbed into the expanding labour market of the growing post-war economy, immigrants today face a decline in stable jobs in an increasingly polarized urban labour market divided into high-skill/high wage jobs on the top and low-skill/low wage service work at the bottom. Too many immigrants are trapped in precarious employment situations in the fast-growing lower segment of the city’s labour market.

Human capital theory and the global “battle for talent”

The rise in poverty among recent immigrants stands in stark contrast to human capital theory, the theoretical foundation of the Canadian immigration system. With roots in neoclassical economics, human capital theorists propose that knowledge and skills be understood as factors of production in the same way as are units of physical or fixed capital such as buildings, machinery and infrastructure more generally. Therefore, higher levels of skills and knowledge in the workforce are said to lead to higher productivity and economic growth. When human capital theory is applied to immigration, attracting skilled workers from abroad becomes a key strategy for economic prosperity and growth 1.

The discourse around economic competitiveness is shaping urban politics in Canada. City elites are increasingly concerned with positioning their city in a hierarchy of so-called global cities. The emergence of alliances to promote the competitiveness of cities across North America is indicative of this trend. The Toronto City Summit Alliance (TCSA), which emerged out of the 2003 Toronto City Summit, is one such coalition. The TCSA claims to be an inclusive partnership of all relevant stakeholders in the city. It stresses its pluralist structure and the collaborative and consensual nature of its decision-making. But judging by the make-up of its steering committee, the TCSA is evidently influenced by a business-driven agenda with little public accountability. While stressing community development, the overall discourse of the TCSA is one of competitiveness and economic growth. “Compete or die” has become the mantra of the urban development discourse in Toronto.

The TCSA has incorporated the issue of immigrant employment into the discourse of competitiveness through one of its key initiatives: the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC). TRIEC is the first coordinated attempt to address the issue of immigrant underemployment in the city of Toronto. As TRIEC is an employer-driven initiative, integrating skilled immigrants into the workforce is not framed as a social justice issue but rather as a sound human resource and management practice geared towards fostering the competitiveness of individual firms and the city-region more generally.

In late 2006, TRIEC launched a very successful media campaign to increase public awareness about the issue of immigrant underemployment in Toronto. Four clips featured highly skilled immigrants in low-wage service work situations: A medical doctor as a cab driver, an engineer in a fast-food restaurant, a computer specialist as a messenger and a (female) MBA as a janitor. The punch line was the same for each clip. For the one showing the doctor, for example, it was “If Canada is a land opportunity, why is a doctor driving a cab?” In these dramatized illustrations, immigrant underemployment is described solely as an economic loss to either an individual business or the local economy more generally. What the clips do not address – at least explicitly – are the racialized and gendered dimensions of immigrant underemployment in Toronto. All four characters belong to racialized communities and one of them is a woman. The clips remain equally silent about the growth of the low-wage, precarious service employment in the local economy and how processes of racialization and gendering fundamentally shape the allocation of workers within the local labour market. So while the campaign needs to be credited for highlighting the situation many skilled immigrants find themselves in, it leaves the reality of a deregulated labour market completely unchallenged. The punch line of the clips should ask, for example, “If Canada is a land of opportunity, why is a Latina woman, who also holds an MBA, cleaning offices?”

Neoliberalism, immigration and the privatization of social reproduction

From a neoliberal perspective, the ‘ideal immigrant’ comes at little or no cost for the receiving country. The ideal immigrant is supposed to acquire his or her human capital abroad, a process that effectively externalizes and reduces the costs of education and training for the receiving country. While many find this transfer of skilled workers from the global South to the industrialized North morally objectionable, neoliberals justify it by arguing that skilled immigrants should be free to go wherever they can get the highest return for their investment in education. Furthermore, the ideal immigrant is supposed to be readily employable and to be able to bear the costs of his or her integration into society.

In Canada, this latter trend is expressed in the Right of Permanent Residence Fee – often referred to as a ‘modern head tax’ – and also in the kind of state support immigrants can expect upon arrival. It is no coincidence that the increasing emphasis on human capital comes at a time when the Canadian state is withdrawing its support for a variety of social programs and services on which immigrants have traditionally relied 2.

Neoliberalism is also about re-privatizing the costs of social reproduction, including food preparation, childrearing, and domestic care-work, as well as education and training. Neoliberalism has pushed formerly collectively-provided social services back into the private sphere. Women have been most negatively affected by these trends. Since they bear most of the burden of social reproduction, they have less time to invest in the acquisition of ‘valued’ human capital through formal education. Neoliberal immigration discourse inspired by human capital theory is silent about the inequitable – and highly gendered – access to human capital acquisition. Labour market integration programs based on human capital theory are equally silent about questions of gender. In fact, programs that perceive the human capital of immigrants as pre-given and unproblematic may actually reproduce existing gender inequalities. These inequalities are crucial dimensions in the segmentation of the urban labour market.

Shifting political discourses: From equity to ‘diversity management’

Employer-driven initiatives such as TRIEC set the agenda for immigrant labour market integration at a time when immigrant-serving community agencies – many of which function as progressive advocates for their constituencies – are faced with stricter funding criteria and increasing competition for government grants. In addition, the shift from stable core funding to short-term project funding – a key feature of the post-welfare funding regime for non-profit agencies – undermines the organizational capacity of many community organizations to engage in political advocacy.

In the past few years, sections of the immigrant middle class in Toronto have started to mobilize around the issue of foreign credential recognition and access to professions and trades through their various ethno-specific professional associations. The Policy Roundtable Mobilizing Professions and Trades (PROMPT) has been the most visible of such efforts. Interestingly, the immigrant professionals have adopted the human capital discourse for their own political objectives. The individualism inherent in human capital theory leads to a very particular kind of political claim around labour market integration of immigrants.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the discourse on employment discrimination in Canada focused on systemic group inequities. Stressing the systemic nature of employment-based discrimination, the report of the Royal Commission on Equality and Employment, for example, embraced a very broad understanding of equality: “Sometimes equality means treating people the same, despite their differences, and sometimes it means treating them as equals by accommodating their differences. Ignoring differences and refusing to accommodate them is a denial of equal access and opportunity. It is discrimination.3” Such claims for employment equity are at odds with neoliberal ideology because they contradict its inherent individualism and preference for market-based forms of citizenship.

Many skilled immigrants are skeptical of employment equity legislation. They mobilize solely around their perceived class status. In fact, as one of the key facilitators behind PROMPT stated in an interview, most immigrant professionals avoid talking about race or racism because they see their political engagement as strictly class-based and of a temporary nature. Their prime objective is to reestablish the class status they held prior to migrating to Canada 4. A PROMPT Discussion Paper highlights the uneasy relationship between the professional immigrant middle-class and employment equity: “Employment equity legislation, or more likely its misapplication, may have worked to marginalize skilled immigrants because the majority of the immigrants in question may have only been recognized by their status as visible minorities in the Canadian context and not on the basis of their skills.5” Incorporating race/racism and gender into the discourse would acknowledge that the disadvantage experienced is group-based rather than the individual under-utilization of an immigrant’s skills.

As a result, the language of employment equity is increasingly being replaced by ‘diversity management.’ Originally a human resources strategy, ‘diversity management’ has become a key ingredient in urban economic development discourse. A culturally and ethnically diverse workforce is seen as an asset for a city’s competitiveness: the more diverse the city, the more competitive it will be. TRIEC represents this shift from equity to diversity management in Toronto. An ethnically diverse workforce is supposed to enable the local business community to access international skills and experience, tap into different business and problem-solving perspectives, and establish connections to new local and international markets.

Skills-commensurate employment for Canada’s immigrant professionals is undoubtedly an important political issue and the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council has been an important initiative and highly successful in raising awareness about the issue. The conceptual silences of human capital theory and ‘diversity management’ around social reproduction, race/racism, and gender, however, may in fact contribute to the increasing polarization within the immigrant community. We need a progressive immigrant employment campaign to challenge the mounting polarization within the local labour market, the increasing precarious nature of employment at the bottom of the labour market, and the racialized and gendered dimensions of labour market inequalities.


1. When the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (Bill C-11) was passed in 2001, Citizenship and Immigration Canada argued that the country needed to “open the door” for skilled immigrants because “the global labour force can benefit Canadians through job creation and transfers of skills. Immigration legislation must be adapted to enhance Canada’s advantage in the global competition for skilled workers.” Quoted in Abu-Laban, Yasmeen and Christina Gabriel. Selling Diversity. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2002.
2. The Canada-Ontario Immigration Agreement, which will channel $920 million into the settlement sector in Ontario over a five year period, signifies a partial reversal of these trends. However, this increase in funding will barely make up for ten years of funding cuts and only bring the sector back to where it was before the Harris government slashed non-profit funding in the mid-1990s by roughly 50 percent. Author interview with Amy Casipullai, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, July 16, 2007.
3. Quoted in Abu-Laban and Gabriel, op cit.
4. Author interview with Uzma Shakir, South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, August 7, 2007.
5. Policy Roundtable Mobilizing Professions and Trades. 2005. Towards a Comprehensive Labour Market Strategy for Immigrants. <www.promptinfo.org>.

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