Written by Naomi Lightman, Toronto Metropolitan University & Hamid Akbary, University of Calgary. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn. Originally published in The Conversation.
Immigrant women working in the care sector do the essential work many Canadians rely on, but low wages mean many need to work past retirement age.
The pandemic has heightened Canadians’ awareness of the 3D jobs — dirty, difficult and dangerous — done by many migrant workers in our communities.
When the pandemic first struck, many of these workers were on the front line working in essential services. Engaged in low-wage work in health and child care, immigrant care workers had high rates of COVID-19 infections, while also experiencing widespread job losses and continuing financial struggles to make ends meet.
Our recent paper in the Journal of Aging and Social Policy reveals troubling realities for immigrant women care workers as they age. We found that immigrant women aged 65 and over who entered Canada through the (Live-in) Caregiver program work more but make less than other comparable immigrant women. The required live-in component was removed in 2014 and the program has since been split into two pilot programs.
Working past retirement age
In Canada, we have long known that it is disproportionately racialized immigrant women (specifically Black and Filipina women) who do challenging and devalued work as carers. We also know that jobs like personal support workers, home health aides and child-care workers are still usually associated with “women’s work” and tend to have low wages.
However, what we have not known is whether these women continue to experience these disadvantages later in life. Specifically, we have very little information about the financial challenges immigrant women care workers in Canada face as they age.
On the one hand, it is plausible that care workers are more likely than other workers to continue working past the typical retirement age because of their relatively low wages and limited savings.
On the other hand, due to the physically and emotionally demanding nature of care work, which can be detrimental to their health, care workers may be less likely to continue working past age 65 and have higher rates of eligibility for government low-income supports.
Our recent research tried to clarify the situation of immigrant care workers as they age. We examined 11 years of Statistics Canada data from 2007-2017 to compare the income sources and trajectories of immigrant women who entered Canada through three migrant entry programs.
We used Statistics Canada’s Longitudinal Immigration Database to unpack how the gendered and racialized devaluation of caring occupations disadvantages immigrant women as they age. The database is a comprehensive source of administrative data that includes information on the socio-economic status of tax-filing immigrants since their arrival in Canada.
The data show that care workers are more likely to be employed after the age of 65 than other immigrant women, but have a lower and declining total income as they age.
Furthermore, while care workers receive higher rates of government pension benefits, they tend to have lower levels of private pension savings. And the cumulative income they report shows a relative decline over time.
Prioritizing care workers as they age
So what does this all mean? Our study underscores serious concerns about government investment in alleviating senior poverty. The conditions of low-wage care workers, before and after retirement, must be prioritized.
The package of pension supports available in Canada, which includes Old Age Security, the Guaranteed Income Supplement and the Canada Pension Plan, does not offset the decline in earnings immigrant care worker women face as they age.
That means there is a need to enhance policies that address senior poverty, recognizing that immigrant care worker women are among Canada’s most vulnerable populations. These women experience intersectional disadvantages as immigrants, women and racialized minorities.
Our findings also reinforce the need for more full-time, permanent and well-paying jobs in the Canadian care sector. As of 2017, the unemployment rate of female immigrants in Canada was nearly double that of their Canadian-born counterparts. Recent research finds that the pandemic increased rates of unemployment and led to shifts to precarious work for many immigrant women in Canada.
The federal government must enhance access to and the amount of money provided through the Guaranteed Income Supplement to address senior poverty within underserved communities. Any government invested in reducing social inequalities and protecting vulnerable senior populations must consider the financial challenges immigrant care worker women face as they age and equalize their income over time with other comparable groups. And we, as the electorate, must do our part to keep governments accountable to this goal.
Ultimately, immigrant women are doing the essential jobs that most Canadians rely on. They are caring for our elderly, sick or young family members when we are in need.
It is the very least we can do to ensure that immigrant women care workers are able to age with financial security, dignity and adequate social protections.