A New Deal for the Immigrant and Refugee Serving Sector


January 2023 / Toronto

It is the fourth day of Kwanzaa as I sit down to write this first blog of the new year, three days before the first day of 2023. Kwanzaa is a Pan-African diasporic holiday celebration created in 1966 by African-American Maulana Ron Karenga. It celebrates history, community, family and culture. And the seven principles celebrated over seven days (December 26th to January 1st) are grounded in the Swahili language, one of the most commonly spoken African languages across the continent.

Today as we celebrate and promote the principle Ujamaa- Cooperative economics, I couldn’t have chosen a better day to complete this last task in my role as executive director of the Council before I take off for a long and much needed vacation.

Our sector- the im/migrant and refugee serving sector is under siege. Historically underfunded, the sector which has evolved over the last three decades into a professional, effective human service sector, has become increasingly aware that the status quo cannot continue if we are to compete for qualified talent, especially against government, public institutions and the private sector which continues to expand its presence in the immigration sector.

The ongoing health pandemic which has upended how organizations in the sector operate, especially in areas of employees’ expectations for life-work balance; fair and adequate compensation including extended health and other benefits like that necessary but still elusive retirement/pension plan, brought this issue into sharp relief. And if there was any one in a leadership position not aware of this, employees are telling us by their actions, leaving sector agencies in droves. At the Council itself we have had significant turnover over the last five years. In the last six months alone, we have seen three employees move on and have two or three positions that we have been unable to fill within that same period of time. This is not sustainable for us. And more important, for agencies that are providing critical frontline services to newcomers to Canada.

This brings me back to Ujamaa- Cooperative economics- supporting each other, moving forward collectively, reaching agreements about bottom lines- price fixing if you will.

It has been heartening to see the growing calls by members to move forward as one sector. Never has the appetite for collective action been more pronounced. Inflation is at over 6%. Ontario is one of the most expensive provinces to live and raise a family – from food to housing to transportation, all areas have seen exponential cost increases without a concomitant increase in wages. This must change. But we can only bring about change if we speak with one voice, reach agreements on salary/compensation floors, agree on real costs of doing business and bring this forward to the funders of our agencies. I think it makes sense to start with the largest funder of the sector (borrowing a tactic from OCASI’s union Unifor and its union partners which often start negotiations with their largest employer), knowing that other funders tend to follow what the Canadian government (in the sector’s case- IRCC) does.

I’ve asked three of our colleagues to share in this space their thinking on what needs to be done as we prepare to negotiate our budgets for 2023-2024. This is our test run, as we prepare for deeper discussions and advocacy on contractual changes we want to see with the federal funder when they issue the Call for Proposals (CFP) in 2024 and with the provincial government (Newcomer Settlement Program) in 2025.

Mulugeta Abai

Research shows Hybrid work and the rise of the four-day work week are among the factors shaping employers’ well-being and mental-health strategies in 2023.The trends point to not only a rise in the recognition of the importance of well-being at work but there’s also a recognition that check-the-box wellness solutions aren’t going to meet people where they’re at.” A recent global pilot program involving more than 900 employees and 33 employers found workers reported increased levels of engagement and improved mental health when working a four-day schedule.

The [coronavirus] pandemic has revealed our human need for autonomy. All of us are hard-wired to want flexibility in terms of where, how, and when we work. Hybrid work and the rise of the four-day work week are becoming a deep-seated neurological need. We can not escape this reality. We have to move with the times and adapt to the times if we are going to address staff wellness and productivity. The recent push for unionization in some sectors, particularly among employees working in frontline positions, as well as the ‘Great Resignation’ and ‘quiet quitting’ phenomena, are similar manifestations of a drive toward improved work-life balance. Whether unionized or not, employees are voting with their feet.

Being an effective leader means incorporating well-being into our leadership style. We need to think about creating new norms around the topic of mental health at work. The old saying ‘check your emotions at the door’ no longer holds. We want a four-day day work week to address staff well-being and decent pay to feed our families. A four-day work week and addressing the cost of living should be the norm.

Lucia Harrison

Our agency has moved to a 4-day work week, with 2 groups on a rotation so each group gets a 4-day weekend every second week. We increased our workday to 8:45 hours. Everyone still works 35 hours. The centre is still open 5 days a week, and we have actually increased the number of hours our centre is open to serve clients. We implemented this in June and a survey conducted in Oct had a 95% satisfaction rate from staff. The most common comment in the survey was "improved work / life balance".

We also have most staff working on a hybrid model, except our LSP staff because of the nature of our agreement with the library.  Our board approved this as a pilot in June and they have agreed to approve permanent changes to our personnel policy to reflect these changes. The board's major considerations were 1) that our clients were being served, 2) staff well-being and 3) that we were meeting our funded commitments. As a courtesy,

I did let our funders know about the changes, but did not see a need to get their " permission " since this is obviously an organizational issue. We have seen increased productivity and based on our staff survey, we have boosted morale. It is working for us.

Orlando Ferro

Hiring and retaining staff in the non-profit charitable sector.

The current challenge faced by our organization is to hire and retain staff in our region during the post lock down due to the pandemic. Labour shortages throughout Canada are also impacting our region and competitiveness needs to be addressed by offering attractive benefits and work flexibility in our recruiting and retention strategy while at the same time, maintaining the productivity expected by multiple funders.

This challenge is noticeable throughout the settlement sector and is also magnified by a large number of management staff in the process of retiring without a viable replacement. This complex issue will affect agencies with multiple funders, provincial federal and municipal, it will create a difficult consensus among all the funders on how agencies will respond to that, it will impact client accessibility to services and achieving CA targets unless a flexibility of benefits and working hours is in place with a commitment of targets achievement independent of restrictive funding conditions.

We are currently adopting the hybrid model permanently as it allows staff to work from home in certain days of the week, this has increased the staff performance and satisfaction while saved them on commuting costs. We had a survey among staff before moving ahead with this. The Federal government seems to be moving in the same direction, effective January 23rd.

Not creating good working conditions that will provide a balance to staff between family and working time will be a recipe for disaster in times when stress and mental health are taking a toll on productivity and staff quitting their jobs for better opportunities during a labour shortage market. The funders need to be aware of that when negotiating new contracts.

We know that we must remain vigilant and continue to raise concerns about the expansion of the Service Systems Management program of Employment Ontario. And we will continue to strongly advocate for increases to the Investing in Women’s Fund while ensuring that the provincial government’s plan to expand this funding to more women’s organizations is inclusive of grassroots groups and agencies working with the most marginalized women across the province.

2023 will be a year of advocacy for our sector. I’m excited about walking this path with you, and to all we can accomplish to ensure that we are fully resourced to provide the quality and timely services that newcomers to Ontario require and deserve.

Happy New Year.