Life is never easy for a refugee, and Ana Maria Seifert was no exception.
Though she was highly schooled in her native Bolivia (including classes
in medical school), she had no choice but to work in menial jobs when
she arrived in Montreal. For many immigrants, particularly women, "sweat
shop" work in the garment business has traditionally been available.
The name "sweat shop" refers to the lousy working conditions
that existed in many of these factories, where the women sewed clothes
for low pay in overcrowded, poorly lit and ventilated factories - where
they would break into "sweats." Thankful to have work of any
kind, they seldom complained for fear of losing their jobs. Eventually,
some women banded together, and forming unions, they helped improve
working conditions in these sweat shops. Though working conditions for
women in the garment industry today have greatly improved, it still
could be better. Knowing this was one of the reasons Ana Maria chose
to study "ergonomics' and work for the improvement of workplace
health and safety.
Besides working in the garment industry, many South American immigrant
women often become "chambermaids" or "domestics,"
particularly in Canada's hotel business. The low-paying (usually minimum
wage) work requires little education and in some cases, it is not even
necessary to have English (or French) language skills. This kind of
work can at first seem attractive to a newly arrived South American
women looking to bring in some money. It is work, they are being paid,
and they know how to clean and "keep house," skills most Latin
women have been taught starting when they were children. However, as
they soon find out, this work can be tough, physically demanding with
occupational hazards. Specifically, many chambermaids have developed
severe back problems from repeated liftings of heavy things, and from
the day-to-day toll of constantly making beds. Again, Ana Maria has
seen the plight of her fellow immigrant women, and is working to improve
their working conditions (and change some of their cleaning and lifting
techniques) to reduce the occupational stresses for these working women.
Many Latin American refugees, both men and women, have faced obstacles
in finding work in their original occupational fields. We know this,
because according to census information, there is a big difference for
many Latins in "intended occupation" upon first arrival, and
"actual occupation" listed after they have been here for awhile.
There are several reasons for this. As mentioned above, most of their
university and professional accreditations have not been accepted here
in Canada (Canada accepts very few foreign accreditations), so to practice
in their field, they have to reeducate themselves. Secondly, during
the period they arrived in the 1970s, many employers, (who were nervous
about hiring immigrants or refugees), would put as a hiring requirment:
"Applicant must have Canadian experience." Naturally, someone
new to the country could not have Canadian experience (which the employer
knew), and this was a successful way of blocking the hiring of immigrants
for certain jobs, usually ones requiring the most skills. So poorly
paid, labouring jobs would be open to them, while other more lucrative,
demanding jobs would not.
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