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In Search of a Better Life: The Experiences of Working Poor Immigrants in Vancouver, Canada

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Abstract

We utilized data from 72 in-depth interviews with immigrant hotel and hospital support workers employed in the service sector of Vancouver, Canada to analyse migration decisions and subsequent experiences after arrival. We found that migrant social networks were centrally important, both as a stimulus for migration and in shaping post-arrival experiences. At the same time, the working conditions faced by immigrants after arrival, such as low pay and long work hours, resulted in serious challenges. While some struggled with multiple jobs to make ends meet, others felt their economic circumstances prevented them from even bringing their children to Canada. In some cases, children were returned to their country of origin. Features of low-wage service sector jobs also limited the time available for participation in community life.

The findings both support and advance recent theoretical contributions about the incorporation of immigrants in the United States and Canada. As immigrants frequently face occupational downgrading and are channelled into low-wage service sector jobs, the conditions of work and social policies are important for their post-arrival experiences and incorporation.

Going beyond traditional conceptions of citizenship in the immigration literature, some respondents acted through their union and community organizations to attempt to change society and improve their fortunes. While some sought social justice through political activism, others used their limited family and community life time to reterritorialize values from their countries of origin. Part of their activism was transnational, such as sending remittances to help loved ones back home, but other involvement included participation in organizations with the aim of promoting social justice or improving life in their new country. The experiences of immigrant service sector workers in Vancouver suggest a need for greater emphasis on the role of both immigrant and non-immigrant specific social and labour policies for understanding immigrant incorporation in North America.

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