A Chance to Succeed
A partnership between Action for Healthy Communities and the CLAC Foundation is giving refugees and immigrants to Canada much-needed help preparing them to enter the job market
By Lisa Helder and Dan VanKeeken
Zubhair Ahmed thinks that working in Canada is amazing. And compared to his old job in his native Pakistan, it is.
“Back home, I was a prevention and quality manager in the garment industry,” he says. “It was very demanding. In a one-month period, I would work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for three or four days, then 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. for five or six days, and then 9 a.m. to midnight for more than 10 days. I would be off for a total of only four or five days in a month. I wasn’t paid any overtime. I did this for 18 years.”
Zubair’s story is not unlike that of many refugees and immigrants who come to Canada. Some are fleeing persecution. Others are seeking a better life and greater economic opportunities for themselves and their families.
Zubair is resource room facilitator with Action for Healthy Communities (AHC), an Edmonton-based charity that works to improve the lives of individuals—many of whom are newcomers to Canada—and their communities. AHC runs programs to help new Canadians get the language and skills training they need to gain meaningful employment. The services it offers include everything from employment counselling to computer access to job boards to resume writing.
In 2019, AHC began a multiyear partnership with the CLAC Foundation, CLAC’s charitable arm dedicated to improving the lives of workers at home and around the world. Through the foundation, recently landed immigrants and refugees can get free preemployment training with CLAC Training so they can access jobs that were previously out of reach.
Canada is a country built on immigration and is recognized internationally for being a nation that warmly welcomes newcomers. Part of this welcome includes assisting the 330,000 immigrants who came to Canada in 2019 settle in and enter the job market. Thanks to organizations like AHC and the CLAC Foundation, they are getting the skills, language, and job training they need to participate and contribute successfully in our diverse society.
When Nafiaa Alokla came to Canada in 2016, he was one of many refugees fleeing war and violence in Syria. He landed in Edmonton in the middle of December with limited resources and knowing very little English. He had no connections and knew that he needed a job right away. It’s difficult to make ends meet on the stipend that single refugees receive from the government.
Within a month, Nafiaa managed to find a job as a part-time cleaner. He began watching Friends religiously to improve his English skills.
Unable to get enough hours cleaning, Nafiaa headed to the West Edmonton Mall in search of other employment opportunities.
“I walked up to a mobile phone booth, and I told the guy working there that I am new here and I’m looking for a job,” says Nafiaa. “I used to work in a mobile store for several years in Syria, so I had experience. He didn’t have any openings then, but a month later he called me and said there was a job for me at the Northgate mall. That’s how I got started.”
Nafiaa’s new boss helped him improve his English even more.
“I had just learned how to speak English to people face to face,” says Nafiaa. “But on the phone, it wasn’t as easy. It is difficult to understand a different language on the phone because you don’t see the facial expressions of the other person. But now I’m good on the phone.”
Today, he works not only part time at the mobile phone provider, but also for AHC.
He is passionate about his work because he doesn’t want other refugees to go it alone like he did when he arrived.
Many AHC employees and volunteers are new Canadians themselves seeking to help new arrivals navigate their way into Canadian society and the job market. They are an invaluable asset because they understand what clients are going through because they’ve gone through it themselves. They also serve as an inspiration to those worried about finding their way in a strange country.
“I was so impressed with Nafiaa,” says Andrea Streisel, who is AHC’s employment and integration program lead. “He was doing things that none of my clients were really doing, and I thought, how did you figure this out on your own? For me to have him, and others like him, on my team supporting their own communities and serving as an example of success is an incredible thing.”
The CLAC Foundation's involvement opens a new avenue for AHC and its clients. By facilitating skills training through CLAC Training, clients can take the courses they need to have access to jobs that would otherwise be out of reach for them.
Courses currently include WHMIS, CSTS, and First Aid. By the end of 2019, the CLAC Foundation hopes to have facilitated WHMIS and CSTS training for 120 workers.
“What’s been really positive about our partnership with the CLAC Foundation is the willingness to figure out solutions for problems that are arising as we work to solve them,” says Andrea. “I really appreciate how the foundation has been open to supporting new ideas, knowing we’re not always going to hit it out of the park the first time. Accessibility to employment isn’t always simple.”
One of the new ideas that was recently launched is the Community Trainer program. Through it, new Canadians are trained to be certified WHMIS trainers.
These new trainers have started supporting other newcomers who need WHMIS training at AHC. This is particularly beneficial for newcomers who are still working on their English. By having a trainer who speaks their native language, they are able to engage in the material more fully.
Nafiaa is one of the first community trainers to become certified and can now teach WHMIS. The CLAC Foundation hopes to train up to five community trainers per year in the coming years. Community trainers will eventually identify new training needs and co-create processes for new training initiatives.
In addition to running courses and training trainers, the CLAC Foundation partnership also includes taking potential trainees on monthly tours of the CLAC Training facility at the union’s Edmonton Member Centre to help orientate them before their courses begin. When AHC clients finish their various preemployment courses with CLAC Training, they also get a jobs profile via CLAC Jobs and have access to job listings. New lists are sent to AHC weekly. Staff and volunteers help clients sort through possibilities, navigate online job searches, create resumes, and prepare them for interviews.
The services provided by AHC are vital to ensuring new Canadians have a chance to succeed. As more immigrants gain stable, meaningful employment, their families and the communities in which they live will thrive.
“New immigrants are often desperate—they don’t know what type of work they should do or what resources are available,” says Zubair. “We help them walk through the steps to gaining employment.
“When I go home in the evening after work, sometimes clients call and say, ‘You helped us with our resumes, and now we have work.’ It gives me great satisfaction knowing I was able to do something to help them.”
In the resource room where Zubair works, clients can access computers, printers, and information about job resources and job fairs. Available jobs tend to be in food services, customer service, janitorial, warehouses, office administration, and even engineering, for those qualified.
AHC employees sort through job postings every week, including CLAC Jobs postings, to highlight jobs suitable for their clients. They also get clients signed-up with the preemployment safety or other types of training they need, including training with CLAC. Clients can bring their resumes to AHC for help updating, polishing, and writing cover letters.
Recently, a volunteer has even started teaching clients basic computer skills—right from turning the machines on—because so much job searching is done online these days. Many AHC clients come from developing countries and thus have limited experience with technology.
Every Saturday, AHC holds a Job Club meeting. It’s very informal, with the first half hour dedicated to mingling so that clients can build networks with each other, learn from each other, and practice their English together. They then discuss job-hunting tactics.
“We try to encourage them to think outside of cleaning jobs because that’s sort of the go-to for everyone,” says Andrea. “We’re trying to encourage them to be more confident about their skills and their language so that they can access other work.
“We practice English and talk about skill development. Some people even come after they get a job. We talk with them about what their first week of work might look like and how to ask for help or clarification. There’s no formal curriculum because we just roll with the group—what they want to talk about is what we do.
“What I care about most is that workers know their rights, gain confidence, develop critical thinking skills, and know their options. They are such prime candidates for exploitation.”
Skills and language training alone is not enough. It’s so important that immigrants hear from various workers and volunteers about their rights.
It’s also where introducing them to CLAC and the concept of unions is helpful. The idea that you can turn down unsafe work, that you don’t need to put up with harassment, and that there are limits on how many hours you can work is so foreign to many AHC clients that they can scarcely believe that it’s true. Many do not realize that they have the right to join a union.
The experience many immigrants have with work back in their former country often leaves them feeling very disoriented when they first start working in Canada. They are so used to how things were—and so afraid that things will be the same when they start a job in Canada for the first time.
That’s why it’s so important for AHC to employ people who have been there before, who know what they are going through. People like Zubair.
“When I came here from Pakistan in 2013, I started working at Home Sense,” he says. “My hours were 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.
“On my second day, at 4:55, my supervisor came and asked what I was still doing here. I said I just needed to finish up one or two things and I’d go home. The next day, I did the same thing.
“At the end of the week, he came and asked if I wanted overtime. I was so worried. I thought, oh no, it’s going to be like back at home. I joked, ‘Do we have the option to say no?’
“He said, ‘Why not?’ So I said no. Then I went home and was thinking the entire weekend that I was going to have to find a new job on Monday because he would fire me for turning down overtime. But on Monday, he greeted me like normal. I couldn’t believe it!
“On my lunch, I called my friend back home in Pakistan—it was midnight there and he was still working. I told him I’d turned down overtime. He asked if I was looking for a new job. I said no, it’s so different here. He couldn’t believe it either.
“I stayed at Home Sense for a full year and didn’t even look for another job because I didn’t trust that it would be like this elsewhere too. Now, I work here at AHC helping clients with their resumes, cover letters, and job searches.
“Working here and helping others is amazing. Working in Canada is amazing.”
Action for Healthy Communities (AHC)
AHC’s objective since its creation in the 1990s is “to build the capacity of individuals and groups to improve their lives and communities through a unique community building process, including support, mentoring, and training.”
That training now includes courses with CLAC Training through the CLAC Foundation. The employment and integration program is also supported by the federal government and a number of other organizations, although programming originally intended for Syrian refugees has now expanded to include all newcomers to Canada. AHC provides everything from employment counselling to a resource room to training to get people into the workforce.
AHC by the Numbers
- 10,000+ clients
- 100 partners and supporters
- 57 program sites
- 300+ volunteers and placement students
- 11,000 hours of support
- 4,200 unique clients for the Settlement, Integration & Supports program
- Other programs include: New Immigrant & Refugee Youth; Healthy Active Community Kids; Entrepreneurial Supports; Adult Literacy & Skills Development; Community Development Supports
Source: AHC 2018–2019 Annual Report
Anane Dabala’s Story
- AHC employment counsellor and community outreach worker
- Arrived in Canada from Ethiopia in 2018 as a refugee
“I waited six years for my visa to come through to emigrate here from Ethiopia. My cousin acted as my sponsor, and my brother had already moved to Canada and was working in fabrication. When I got here, I spoke almost no English.
“I was determined to get a job. I came here to AHC to improve my English and find jobs to apply for. I would apply for jobs and ask Andrea to help me prepare for the interviews, even though I knew very little English. I figured I’d apply and see if they would give me a chance.
“Last year, I worked at Rogers Centre as a banquet steward. It’s not a glamorous job, but it allows you to practice your English.
“This year, I work 30 hours per week at AHC helping other people get jobs. I work as an employment counsellor and serve on the community outreach team. AHC made all the difference for me, which is why I’m working with them today.”
The CLAC Foundation was founded in 2013 with an aim to support struggling workers and their families in Canada and around the world. It helps the homeless, new immigrants, and refugees across the country find meaningful work by partnering with other nonprofit organizations and charities that want to provide the kind of preemployment training at which CLAC excels. The foundation relies on donations to fund its work.
In addition to Action for Healthy Communities in Edmonton, the CLAC Foundation has partnered with Lutherwood in the Region of Waterloo and Wellington County in southern Ontario and the Mustard Seed in Edmonton and Calgary. The CLAC Foundation is also looking to expand its partnerships with similar nonprofit organizations in communities in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and throughout BC’s Lower Mainland.
Internationally, the CLAC Foundation partners with programs and organizations that promote workers’ rights in developing nations, where employment conditions are often appalling, wages are poor, and job security or benefits nonexistent. One of these partners is the China Labour Bulletin, which advocates for worker rights in China and Hong Kong.
Positive, rewarding, and fulfilling work for the marginalized, which contributes to the transformation of lives and communities
The CLAC Foundation contributes to positive, rewarding, and fulfilling work for all living in Canada and globally by
- Collaborating with community-based partnerships
- Funding skills-training and education
- Advocating for the promotion and protection of worker’s rights
To learn more and get involved, visit clacfoundation.ca.
Save the Shirts
How bad is it working in one of Pakistan’s many sweatshops, where just asking to use the washroom can get you fired? According to the January 2019 Human Rights Watch report “No Room to Bargain,” 15 million people—mostly women—work in the country’s garment industry, the largest employer in the manufacturing sector with 38 percent of workers.
Along with asking to use the washroom, being fired for not working overtime is common. Some workers have reported being denied clean drinking water. Workplace conditions are often unsanitary. There are documented cases of workers being beaten. Regulations regarding breaks and maternity and medical leaves are ignored. Women who are visibly pregnant are routinely fired. Most leave on their own accord to avoid the indignity of being fired.
Attempts to organize by independent unions are quickly squashed. Owners use bribes, threats, and violence to suppress them. Protesting conditions will get you fired.
But even worse, working in one these sweatshops can cost you your life. In 2012, a fire broke out at the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Karachi—the worst industrial disaster in Pakistan’s history. The investigation revealed that the factory had almost no fire or safety systems in place. The fire killed 255 workers and injured more than 100. Managers made no immediate attempt to save workers—they tried to save the clothing first.