October 21, 2020
By Ana Ferrer, Bessma Momani, Policy Options
While the mantra for the COVID-19 crisis has been “let’s build back better,” it will be impossible to do so without acknowledging that this pandemic has hit demographic groups unequally. Immigrant women faced many challenges in the workforce before COVID, but this pandemic has had a way of further exacerbating existing social and economic inequities. To ensure we come out of this crisis with a more resilient economy and better institutions, it is essential that we understand the differentiated impact of the pandemic on our diverse communities and bring forth policy ingenuity to make sure workers and their families are not left behind.
The impact of the pandemic on the labour market has been profound, particularly for women. The overall gender differences in the impact of COVID-19 are partly due to school and daycare shutdowns and the crisis in our long-term care centres. Gendered norms still designate women as the ones to step up and tend to our homefront, which has compounded the daily care responsibilities of many women during the pandemic. But the closure of economic activity has also directly induced larger drops in the employment of immigrant women.
Undoubtedly, the pandemic has had devastating effects on new entrants to the labour market, young adults and recently arrived immigrants. Yet among workers with more secure jobs – those aged 25 to 54 and immigrants arriving more than 10 years ago – the differentiated impact on immigrant women is startling. Employment rates for these immigrant women dropped by 12.2 percentage points between May 2019 and May 2020, according to our calculations using Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey. This compared to drops of 7 percentage points for Canadian-born men and women and of 8 points for immigrant men.
Employment rates offer one view of the labour market. A falling number indicates that workers have quit or lost their jobs. Unemployment rates, on the other hand, measure the fraction of individuals who do not currently have jobs but are actively looking for work.
In the year between May 2019 and May 2020, the unemployment rate of these immigrant women dramatically increased, by around 7 percentage points. During that time, the unemployment rate of Canadian-born men and women and of immigrant men rose significantly less, approximately by 4.5 points. It is worth noting that increases in unemployment rates were even higher among recent immigrant women (9.6-point increase) but not recent immigrant men (4.3-point increase). Even more troubling is the fact that immigrant women with high levels of education were particularly disadvantaged. University-educated immigrant women experienced the largest unemployment rates, 12.6 percent in May 2020, 7.3 percentage points higher than in May 2019. In contrast, university-educated Canadian-born women experienced unemployment rates of 5 percent, only 2.7 percentage points higher than last year.
We know that workers in the service sector were more negatively impacted than in other industries. Clearly, we are travelling less, eating out less, and we shifted our purchases to online shopping instead of visiting bricks and mortar retailers. However, even within the service sector, shutdowns affected immigrant women workers differently.