FIRST JOBS FOR REFUGEE WOMEN
by New Experiences for Refugee Women
Latin American Women adapt to a new life in Canada
New Experiences for Refugee Women, established in Toronto in 1983 as an employment preparation and placement program for refugee women, promotes social, cultural and economic integration into Canadian society. It provides English as a second language instruction, orientation, life skills training, vocational counseling, skill training and on-the-job experience.
Unlike other immigrants, refugees do not come to Canada freely. They have not saved, planned and prepared. They don't see Canada as an opportunity for economic advancement but as an escape and a haven. The formidable task which faces all immigrants to integrate, function and survive in a new land is made worse by the trauma and grief from which the refugee is fleeing.
The women come primarily from Central America where they were descendents of the Mayans, one of the region's most flourishing civilizations. They are rooted in that land but are forced to move to Canada when surviving in a battlefield has become unbearable.
The violence that ravages Central America has informed them that they are no longer wanted there. Families have been fragmented and lives shattered through detention, imprisonment, torture, disappearance and death. New tears and terrors are added as they wait for immigration procedures to be completed. Many are disturbed and have other medical problems caused by neglect in their homeland.
Dentistry, for example, was and is a luxury. "Routine" medical checkups might occur once every 10 years. Post-partum care is nonexistent and preventive medical care is impossible. Having lost their land, their families, relatives, health, identity and self-esteem, refugee women are in great need of special services. They need an opportunity to understand and adapt to the role they will playas women in their adopted country. They are entering a society where women's roles are undergoing dramatic change. The number of women working in Ontario has more than tripled in the past 24 years.
Women's participation rate (the percentage of all women who work) has almost doubled. Refugee women join a population of women, the majority of whom, even those with pre-school and school-age children, work outside the home - substantially different from their traditional roles. Canadian women work to support themselves or their children, or to keep their families above the poverty line. They work primarily in a few female-dominated, low pay, low-skill, low-status occupations and earn approximately 60 per cent of what Canadian men earn.
Immigrant women are especially vulnerable to exploitation, discrimination and racism. They may not know their rights as workers, employees and women and may not have the self-confidence to take action against injustices. They are easily locked into the few areas of work in which others, like themselves, are concentrated. To be self-sufficient in Canada they must enter the labour force - a daunting prospect for one who speaks little English, knows little of Canadian society and who is struggling to come to terms with events at home.
ESL classes and employment counselling available from other community agencies lead only to marginal jobs as cleaners and sewing machine operators. Many refugees are ineligible for programs for immigrant women because they lack English and transferable academic qualifications. (NEW was originally sponsored by the Working Skills Centre of Ontario, a mailroom and computer-skills training program serving Spanish and Portuguese immigrant women. Many refugee women had to be turned away because they lacked English and because their immigration status was unclear.) Latin American refugee women needed an agency designed exclusively for them.
Data collected from a survey of 75 Latin American refugee women, supported by information from NEW's participants and community centers indicate that the most likely entry level employment opportunities now available are as office clerks, community workers, day-care workers, teaching assistants, home-care or kitchen workers; as assemblers in manufacturing pharmaceuticals, textiles, clothing, jewellery, furniture, ceramics and electronics. Other opportunities exist in warehousing and distribution and in jobs involving invoicing and inventory control.
These jobs are now being advertised and many have previously been held by participants and graduates of the program. They are traditional women's jobs offering some skill development and mobility, some opportunity for further training and increase in wages. Some entry level jobs expand to the less traditional areas of offset printing, screen process printing, carpentry and cabinet assembly. NEW wants to develop a large and diverse pool of employers in the more traditional jobs where refugee women are accepted. Less traditional jobs will require research, contact with employers and further orientation. These opportunities will be introduced as soon as employers can be found and the women express interest.