Underpaid & undervalued: The precarious existence of immigrant women workers in Canada

Note: The issue of precarious employment is not unique to immigrant women.

Or, immigrants.

Or, women.

Within the current labor market, the proliferation and normalization of part-time jobs, contract work, and temporary positions pose a threat to the livelihood of millions of working-middle class Canadians. A topic for another post.

However, I would like to dedicate March to women, and women’s issue in our society.

Intersectionality is also a useful concept to consider.

Precarious employment and immigrant women

In Canadian society, we believe in the cause and effect relationship between hard work and success. But for some groups in our society, such assumed relationship between hard work and success doesn’t seem to produce such casual effect.

The continuously growing social, political, and economic marginalization of racialized immigrant women in our society showcases the general conditions of life marked by uncertainty and instability for immigrant women.

Precarity refers to a “politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks… [that] differentially exposes them to injury, violence, and death.”Undervalued and underpaid employment, mainly within a racialized and gendered labor market, create hazardous working conditions that immensely threaten the physical and mental well-being of refugee and immigrant women workers.

Immigrant women face unique and complex challenges within the labor force because of the intersection of race, class, gender, and immigration status that interact to render these women invisible and undervalued within the labor market. The non-recognition of credentials and experience from their home countries, uncertain immigration status, their lack of social connections make these women vulnerability to multiple systemic barriers of inequality and discrimination.Many of immigrant women make, on average, much less than the hourly minimum wage.

Systemic sexism and racism also create a hostile work environment where discrimination and harassment are prevalent that directly result in the women’s poor mental and physical health. One study found an alarming rate of workplace incident of injuries and abuse that often went underreported.2 However, these women are not able to afford adequate health care when dealing with debilitating health issues stemming from their working condition. The same study found that many of the women participants indicated stretching prescribed medications to last longer by cutting the dosage in half, which can certainly have health consequences.In short, immigrant woman become trapped in a cycle of precarious employment and poverty that directly impact their mental and physical well-being.

Precarious work not only creates precarious health but it also makes for precarious families as well. The economic and social inequities that keep racialized immigrant women trapped in a cycle of precarious employment and poverty also create the pathways for the intergenerational cycle of poverty. The lack of social capital in networking and mentoring particularly among low wage earners and their families directly tied to systemic discrimination based on race, gender, and class that these women face. These conditions create vulnerability in the job market, where immigrant women are willing to take on precarious employment that put their health and well-being in danger and render them invisible and undervalued. 

Some recommendations to tackle the issue include employment equity and the recognition by policymakers, health care professionals, and community and social services agencies that the system of precarious employment undermines the health of immigrant workers who are trapped in this precarity. 


  • Poverty is a key contributor to precarity.
  • Precarious employment not only undermines the health of immigrant women workers but also to keep them in a cycle of marginalization, discrimination, and alienation at work, at home, and in the broader society.
  • To truly challenge the precarious employment, we must critically challenge neoliberalism and its economic practices that have made precarious employment and worsening working conditions the new norm in workplaces, not only for immigrants but for a significant number of the population that depend on wages for survival.


  1. Butler, J. (2009). Performativity, precarity and sexual politics. AIBR-Revista de Antropologia Iberoamericana, 4(3), 321.
  2. Ng, W. et. al. (2016). “Working so hard and still so poor!” A Public Health Crisis in the Making: The Health Impacts of Precarious Work on Racialized Refugee and Immigrant Women. Retrieved from http://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/clmr/publications/Final%20Report%20(Precarious%20Work).pdf

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