It’s time to empower our most vulnerable workers

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      By Claudia Hepburn

      The pandemic has made it clear: the workplace can be dangerous. Workers in some sectors are disproportionately impacted by exposure not only to the virus, but also to violence. The majority of workers in these sectors -- healthcare, retail and the hospitality industry -- are women.  Many are also immigrants.

      Impacts of workplace violence and abuse can be devastating. They take their toll on mental health, cause lost wages through absenteeism and undermine self-confidence and personal agency. These impacts are even harder on newcomer women, who are already dealing with the stresses and isolation caused by life in a new country.

      What can be done to help immigrant women escape workplace violence? One of many important solutions: focus on empowerment.

      Financial security, personal autonomy and career mobility are important defenses for all women. When women are financially literate and empowered, they can become financially secure.

      Currently, StatsCan reports that only 31 per cent of women consider themselves to be financially knowledgeable. In our experience at Windmill Microlending, where we have spent 16 years lending and teaching financial literacy to immigrants, a much smaller fraction of immigrant women arrive in Canada with the skills to manage their finances or with an understanding of the pathways out of poverty.

      Women can only leave abusive workplaces if they have what it takes to change jobs.

      Before that’s possible, women need the skills, credentials and experience valued by Canadian employers. They also need the financial literacy to weigh the costs and benefits of different career paths and the mental confidence to uproot themselves and sell their skills to a new employer.

      Windmill Microlending, a registered charity, has partnered with Toronto-based Up With Women to help immigrant women increase their financial security, their confidence and their career mobility. Up With Women provides one-to-one coaching with vulnerable women to help them gain the confidence to restart their careers after experiencing violence or homelessness.

      Windmill provides affordable loans, coaching supports and mentorship to help immigrants and refugees achieve professional mobility and financial empowerment.  Windmill’s clients grow their incomes more than three-fold on average, while they learn to manage debt, and gain the Canadian credentials and confidence they need to escape survival jobs and violent workplaces.

      Our organizations are only scratching the surface.

      Each year, Canada is welcoming hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and too often, they get caught in jobs where violence goes undetected.

      We can each take steps to stop violence in the workplace by empowering the women most likely to be its victims. Support a local women’s shelter, volunteer your time as a mentor for a new Canadian, advocate for support in your own workplace or join a giving circle to support immigrant women escaping violence.

      Immigrant women came to Canada to lead better lives, not suffer in abusive workplaces. It’s up to the rest of us to make it clear that workplace violence is unacceptable.