Linda Qi’s hair is longer where it frames her face. When required it falls like a curtain around her face, hiding her facial reactions. Linda says this comes in handy when she has to conceal her emotions at work. She is a recreational officer at a seniors’ home and faces racial discrimination on a regular basis. At the home – run on government welfare funds and housing elderly people who are retired from work – Linda is responsible for taking the seniors out for a an occasional picnic or organising banquets and other social evenings.
While her clients are warm and friendly, the same cannot be said of her colleagues. “The colour of your skin is deeply, deeply ingrained in people’s minds and nothing can change that,” she says, closing her eyes for emphasis, while saying this.
When Linda immigrated from China to Canada, she had hopes to make it big in the land of opportunity. But when she started her co-op work, which was a part of her diploma in social service at the Toronto-based Seneca College, she got to see the dark side of living as an immigrant.
Co-op is a part of the students’ degree programme in Canada. It is a fieldwork module, which requires students to gain practical experience of the work skills taught in class. Students usually work for 300-500 hours (as per their programme schedule) over a period of six to eight months. However, they do not receive any monetary compensation. After the completion of the tenure, they can formally join the organisation as an employee.
Nothing Linda had ever learnt in class could have prepared her for the reception she got from her co-workers and supervisors. It was as if they had already made up their minds to ignore and humiliate her. “I work 10 times harder than white people and out-perform everybody else to survive in the workplace. But when it comes to promotions and appreciation, there are none for me,” she says.
Linda remembers feeling completely shocked when her contribution at work was overlooked on the employee appreciation day. “I did not get a single appreciation certificate from the management even when my clients really liked me and greatly appreciated what I did for them. Here, it is very difficult to get recognised whatever you may do,” says the disappointed student.
In fact, when her colleagues came to know that she was from China they just assumed that she was poor. “I come from an affluent family and the truth is I have to dress-down to merge with rest of the office crowd. I don’t wear expensive jewellery or clothes because nobody would like to see fancy stuff on an immigrant Chinese student,” she reveals.
Linda’s unhappy experiences with racially intolerant Canadians are not out of the ordinary. Many other women students have complained of discrimination and stereotyping. Rubaba Hussini, from Afghanistan, found her ‘hijab’ (women’s head and body covering) was posing to be a problem when it came to finding work. “I wore my ‘hijab’ to college and everything was fine,” she says. But when she started looking for a co-op placement as a part of her diploma in Early Childhood Education, she was very disappointed. “I would call up people for an interview and everything seemed to be working out, until I went and met them. Then things would change. After failing in 10 interviews, I went for an interview without the ‘hijab’ and was instantly hired as a child care worker.”
Subuhi Jaffary, Employment Counsellor at South Asian Women’s Centre, a Toronto-based not-for-profit outfit, agrees that Muslim women who wear the ‘hijab’ have problems seeking work. Jaffary’s clients include immigrant women hunting for jobs and support. “I had a client who wore a long ‘hijab’. I had to teach her how to present herself. She shortened her ‘hijab’ to a scarf. That made it more fashionable and acceptable in this society.” Jaffary said her client is now studying nutrition at a community college and has been able to find co-op work. “It took her three years to finally make it to the job market.”
There are some small-time employment avenues available to students, including sales jobs, baby sitting and service jobs like waitressing. However, these are just to make some extra cash as they usually pay around CA$8 to CA$13 per hour (US$1=CA$1.02). Also, these are not a part of the course work.
Many Asian students feel that it is not so much the colour of the skin, but the front cover of the passport that decides the response that they get in the job market after graduation. This is because second generation Canadian-Asian women students do not feel racially discriminated at work.
Take the case of Christine Prakash, a second generation Canadian who did her co-op at a seniors’ home as a part of her degree in Geriatrics and Long Term Care. “I have done my schooling in Toronto, and when I started working I had experiences like any other student from my school,” she says. Christine feels that ethnicity or gender did not affect her position at work. Her Indian-origin parents immigrated from the Fuji Islands to Canada. “My skin colour did not really make a difference at the workplace,” she says.
Jaffary agrees that second generation Asian-Canadians have less chances of being discriminated than their parents. “Discrimination is felt by Asian women who are new immigrants. Someone, like my daughter, who was born here and has the same accent as a white Canadian would not experience it,” she says.
Jaffary believes that a college degree helps immigrant women get a job and it does ensure a discrimination-free work environment. “But not everyone can afford to invest their time and money in education.” For many immigrant women it is a question of looking after their children and still finding the time to upgrade their skills.
Hence, in many ways the advanced socio-economics levels of developed country like Canada don’t always translate into better employment opportunities for Asian women pursuing college degrees like their white counterparts.
And the going gets tougher when they enter the regular workforce. Most find that in corporate Canada the glass ceiling turns into concrete for women of colour. Catalyst, a not-for-profit research organisation advancing women and business, conducted a study on visible minority women, which included Asian, Latino and African women. ‘Career advancement in Corporate Canada: a Focus on Visible Minorities’ found that visible minority women feel excluded from informal networking opportunities and hence miss out on promotions within their organisations.
According to the study, the reason they miss out on informal networking is because most of it revolves around social activities such as playing or watching sports. Visible minority women feel uncomfortable in this environment and so it becomes difficult for them to network and they lose out on a mentor within the workplace.
All this impacts on the quality of Canada’s workforce. According to Statistics Canada, the government census agency, cities like Toronto will face an acute shortage of workforce if they continue on this path. Given the fact that the baby-boomers will soon be in the retirement age, visible minorities will come to make up half the workforce within a decade.
(Courtesy: Women’s Feature Service)