It gives us great pleasure to share this guest blog post by Laura Lam. Laura is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and a researcher at Ryerson University. Her research interest is at the nexus of migration, employment and gender inequality. On the side, she is a social entrepreneur and active in supporting anti-human trafficking initiatives in Canada.
Mehran arrived in 2015 as a privately sponsored refugee from Syria and has been a Canadian citizen as of 2019. Upon arrival to Canada, Mehran described to me the little time it took him to get his first “survival” job at a local retailer. This was to be expected - he had heard how hard it was to find work in his field as a newcomer. As a seasoned salesperson working globally before he was forced to flee from his home country, Mehran was eager to be “useful to the Canadian society”. Yet, a few years after his arrival, he still struggled to find a job that suited his skillset. He acknowledged that the retail job he first took was a waste of his talents and skills, compensated with only minimum wage. He knew he had to spend the time to look, interview, network, and the confines of a full-time retail job would not work. He found a solution that would allow him to look for jobs, while having his own schedule.
It was driving for Uber.
Perception and Reality: Platform work framed as a part of the immigration experience
I am part of a research team along with Dr. Anna Triandafyllidou, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration at Ryerson University, conducting an inductive, qualitative study through semi-structured interviews with migrants in Canada who are engaged in platform work 1. The project started in early spring of 2020, against the backdrop of the global pandemic. Canada’s labor market is fueled by migrants, yet we found that there was a dearth of research specifically focused on migrants engaged in the platform economy. We found that platform work increasingly blurs the line between what is considered a low-income, contingent occupation, and what is believed to be a purely transitional way of making money that promises future rewards. It is also seen as part of the Canadian settlement experience.
In the context of platform work, Mehran’s story is one that resonates amongst many migrants to Canada. While the circumstances under which Mehran arrived in Canada as a refugee were different when compared to migrants who arrived through the country’s various immigration streams, his settlement journey is typical of many highly-skilled, highly-educated migrants. Canada boasts some of the most highly-educated citizens in the world, largely as a result of its merit-based point system, introduced back in the 1960s. However, recent research has shown how overqualified migrants to Canada struggle with labor market integration. What this means is that Canada is experiencing an overflow of overqualified migrant workers that end up taking menial, low-pay work with disproportionate skills-to-job fit. With the multitude of challenges to attaining skills-appropriate employment and the ease of access provided by digital labor platforms, there arises a perfect storm that culminates in the increase of migrants in the gig economy; empirical studies using quantitative census data shows immigrants are more likely to be doing gig work as compared to non-immigrants in Canada.
In examining the Canadian context of migrants engaged in platform work, our study has also allowed us to examine what impact labor platforms may have on migrants’ employment trajectories. Fadi, a family-sponsored migrant living in Toronto with no post-secondary education, compared his first job in Canada working in a factory to almost “like slavery”, while Uber was welcomed as a “good opportunity” for him as a newcomer. Still, Fadi was acutely resolved that his life would not be defined by his work as an Uber driver. We found that while many migrants did not see platform work as an end goal, the extent to which they believe that it is transitionary depends on the concrete steps and goals they have beyond the platform. They are making the best out of their situation in response to the constraints they face in the Canadian labor market. When a participant expressed that the predominant challenge was having a language barrier that barred access to an office job, they reasoned that platform work provided them with free English-speaking lessons – gained tangentially in the course of working on their ride-hailing app. This illustrates a process of sensemaking where migrants create stories that focus on the positive sides of their precarious working conditions.
Our research made us aware that in some instances, platform work has become part of the settlement experience for a newcomer, often promoted by their ethnic social networks, responding to the push factor of the inability to integrate into a competitive labor market and the pull factor of how employment barriers highlight the comparative accessibility of the platform economy. John, a recent economic immigrant from Nigeria expressed that prior to his immigration to Canada, popular online immigration forums from his home country gave detailed accounts of how it was necessary to work on platforms such as Uber in order to gain “Canadian working experience”. Similarly, Mehran had mentally prepared to work on platforms after hearing from his networks that “survival jobs” were a necessary as part of the settlement experience. Again, the challenges of accessing decent work are what makes platforms all the more appealing, and seemingly all the more necessary as a rite of passage in order to settle in Canada. Critically, what does it say about our immigration policies when the expected norm becomes that working on a ride-hailing platform is just part of the immigration experience?
Why we need to care
Almost a century ago in Canada, the movement of migrants from Asia quenched the need for cheap wage work, as agricultural and industrial expansion increased labor demand. In the late 1960s, immigrants could be found working under harsh sweatshop conditions in the heart of Toronto, Canada. Migrants’ vulnerable citizenship status made them attractive to employers dependent on low-wage, precarious employment.
It is important to ask whether we have made any progress through policies and advocacy to assist migrants to find opportunities out of low-wage, precarious employment. While the examples of precarious work above still exist today and are openly observable, there is an inherent danger that our society has simply shifted these historical examples of precarious employment to digital platforms, where they are marketed under the “sharing economy” moniker in the name of “innovation”.
As the conversation around worker protection and the problematic classification of independent contractors comes to the forefront more and more every day, how can countries better protect and help migrants who – I argue – are relegated to platform work as a result of necessity associated with their immigration experience? We are already seeing platform work being considered as a “good opportunity” for migrants settling into a new country, even as it is riddled with safety concerns and questionable labor practices to say the least, yet we have not addressed the systemic issues within our countries and cities that make it increasingly difficult for migrants to find decent, gainful employment in their field. If platform work truly becomes a rite of passage for new migrants, platform companies can continue to exploit and prey upon migrant labor, especially as we examine the outcomes of a global health crisis that is shifting how our labor markets function. Perhaps in addition to the calls for greater platform work regulation, we should also be having a conversation about the need for more viable alternatives for migrants navigating the challenges of an unfamiliar labor market.
We had strived for gender balance in our participants, yet as a limitation to our current research, the stories above show a skewed number of interviews from migrant men. This also aligns with ongoing emphasis on a need for further research to understand how women are represented in platform work. ↩