In 2022, Canada welcomed almost 432,000 immigrants, a new record.
Another 1.45 million are expected over the next three years.
Finding a job, a home and learning either English or French are priorities for many of them. A proportion will be drawn to the construction industry, either because it’s what they did in their homeland or because there are ready jobs.
Language challenges can’t be ignored at construction worksites, given the constant need for safety.
According to a recent study by Quebec researcher Jessica Dubé, up to 80 per cent of people who get hurt on the job in Montreal, and then require rehabilitation, are immigrants.
The CEO of the Vancouver Island Construction Association believes cultural aspects play a role in how newcomers perform at worksites.
Rory Kulmala says construction workers who hail from Latin America or Asia are accustomed to different safety standards.
“They don’t understand the expectations for safety here and it’s often difficult to communicate that,” he says. “We need to pay attention to that.”
For example, in Mexico, the work ethic is different and getting the job done at all costs is common. Workers are often at risk, working without eye or fall protection or PPE.
When newcomers arrive at a Canadian worksite, companies can do several things to ensure safety is a priority, Kulmala advises.
Have a buddy or mentor who speaks the same language as the new hires. Continually reinforce safety protocols. Communicate the information clearly so it is understood. Test, monitor and retest the new hires.
“We have a duty to oversee them,” Kulmala says.
He also warns employers should be checked to ensure they don’t put employees in peril by expecting them to do work cheaper and quicker.
“We can’t put workers in harm’s way.”
Barry Nakahara is a senior manager at WorkSafeBC where the obligation is to promote health and safety and to enforce compliance with regulations and standards.
One key duty of employers is to make sure employees are trained, no matter what language employees speak, says Nakahara.
Employers must also inform employees of their rights, as workers, which can include not suppressing injuries.
But Nakahara notes the challenge of workplace safety cuts across all employees, even those whose first language is English. Some workers hear 20 per cent of the message, some hear 100 per cent or, for some, the message doesn’t register at all.
His advice is to set clear expectations and make sure staff understand. Expectations must be refreshed and workers must be monitored and supervised to guarantee work is carried out safely.
“It’s bigger than simply telling workers they have to work safely,” Nakahara says.
WorkSafeBC does not collect direct data on the number of immigrants working in B.C.’s construction industry and doesn’t have injury statistics. But it does provide services for injured workers and employers in multiple languages through real-time interpretation services. It also produces resources in multiple languages.
A November 2018 article published in International Health found a direct correlation between language proficiency and workplace injury in Canada. One study determined 75 per cent of South Asian immigrants who suffered a workplace injury self-rated their English proficiency as poor or very poor.
And a 2016 University of Calgary study found men who have been in Canada less than five years are twice as likely to be injured on the job than Canadian-born workers.
As well, the injuries are serious enough to merit medical treatment 90 per cent of the time.
At the Inter-Cultural Association (ICA) of Greater Victoria, English language training is one of the free programs offered to newcomers and while there is not specific training for construction language, workplace safety is stressed. Employers’ expectations are also discussed.
One key point they learn is to recognize when they are facing dangerous work.
“We advise newcomers of their rights in the workplace,” says Mirko Kovacev, ICA’s employment services manager.
Yet, language and comprehension challenges may not become obvious right at the start. There have been instances where clients appear to have a good grasp of day-to-day language skills, but when it comes to occupation-specific language, such as construction lingo, shortfalls become evident after time at the jobsite.
Kovacev recalls that a few years ago, several new Syrians were drawn to construction work and Arabic-speaking employees were valuable translators.
In the last year, there has been a handful of new arrivals who pursued construction work, Kovacev notes.