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Economic Life

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Salvadoreans/Lisa Kowalchuk

It has been argued that the socio-economic status of Salvadoreans who migrated to Canada is high compared to the homeland. Although there are no data that confirm this assertion, one of the more representative studies lends it support. Of sixty-six Salvadoreans surveyed in Toronto in 1993, 46 percent had worked in


Four provinces in Canada with the largest Salvadorean populations, 1991
Number of Percentage of
Province Salvadoreans total in Canada
Ontario 11,910 42.1
Quebec 8,030 28.4
Alberta 3,665 13.0
British Columbia 2,575 9.1

white-collar occupations before coming to Canada, compared to 38 percent of the labour force in El Salvador. More than half of these workers, or 26 percent of the total sample, had been employed in a professional or managerial capacity. Skilled and unskilled manual workers made up just over a quarter of the group.

In terms of education, some 80 percent of Salvadoreans admitted as refugees between 1980 and 1987 had not finished high school in the homeland. About 17 percent had completed the secondary level, and 2 percent had graduated from university. The unavailability of equivalent statistics makes it difficult to compare these individuals with the Salvadorean population as a whole. Nevertheless, there is a clear disparity between the educational achievement of Salvadorean refugees sponsored by the Canadian government between 1980 and 1987 and those supported by private groups and individuals. A considerably higher level of schooling is found among the former, who represent the bulk of the refugee stream. Several commentators have criticized this apparent intrusion of so-called normal criteria, in particular, the capacity for successful establishment in Canada, into what are supposed to be humanitarian grounds for admission.

Conversation with Salvadoreans repeatedly reveals that their socio-economic status has declined dramatically in this country. This view is echoed in several studies of Salvadorean immigrants. Of the sixty-six individuals in the Toronto survey mentioned earlier, only 12 percent were working in professional or managerial fields, a drop of nearly 14 percent relative to the group’s pre-migration profile. The percentage employed in blue-collar occupations, on the other hand, was almost 17 percent higher, and that increase had occurred entirely in the unskilled category. Similar findings resulted from a study of forty Salvadoreans in Montreal in 1983–84.

This downward mobility can in part be attributed to the language barrier; it is all but impossible for Salvadoreans in Canada to find other than low-skilled, manual work until they have become proficient in English. For many adults who have not studied formally for some time, acquiring English can be difficult. Another problem is that the training and experience that individuals acquired in El Salvador tend to be unrecognized in this country. But instances in which Salvadoreans are passed over, even after occupational and language training in Canada, lend support to a belief that racism is a fundamental obstacle. The fact that almost half the Salvadoreans in the Toronto study had been in this country for at least four years suggests narrower opportunities than might be expected. On the other hand, the prospects of finding employment in fields for which


Occupational sector as percentage of total working-age population, 1986
Salvadorean National population
Total Men Women Total Men Women
White-collar 32.9 33.3 32.2 47.4 41.5 53.0
Upper 6.7 7.0 6.2 18.6 20.3 16.8
Lower 26.2 26.4 26.0 28.8 21.2 36.2
Blue-collar 27.9 36.1 18.6 19.8 33.9 6.3
Other 5.4 6.2 4.3 3.4 5.4 1.5
Not applicable 33.9 24.3 44.5 29.4 19.2 39.0

they have preparation or experience in El Salvador may eventually improve for those younger immigrants able to study in Canada.

Relative to the Canadian labour force as a whole, more Salvadoreans are concentrated in manual occupations and fewer in white-collar jobs. Data from the 1986 census show that only about 7 percent of the Salvadorean immigrants were in managerial occupations, compared to roughly 19 percent of the national population (see Table 2). When all white-collar occupations are considered, the gap grows to nearly 15 percent. Conversely, the proportion of Salvadoreans in blue-collar occupations is 8 percent higher than the national average. Not surprisingly, the limited data on the income of Salvadoreans in Canada reveal that they tend to end up in low-paying jobs. The unemployment rate among the group in 1986, at 25 percent, was more than twice that of the population as a whole.

The 1986 census shows that Salvadorean men and women are equally likely to find white-collar employment. Within that category, however, more women than men work in health-care and clerical fields, while the reverse holds for administrative, technical, and sales positions. In blue-collar occupations the proportion of Salvadorean men was some 18 percent higher than for women. Though this disparity may seem extreme, it is actually smaller than the gap of 28 percent for all Canadian blue-collar workers. More Salvadorean than other Canadian women are employed in blue-collar fields and fewer in white-collar ones, by 12 and 21 percent respectively. Regardless of the level of their income, virtually all Salvadoreans in Canada manage to remit a portion to their families in the homeland.

The occupational transition to Canada has been difficult not merely for former urban professionals and skilled tradespeople. Although no data are available on the proportion of farmers and rural workers among immigrants, anecdotal accounts suggest that many have had to adjust not only to a new country but also to a transition from rural to urban life. A few Salvadoreans, mostly men, have invested their attachment to the countryside, their farming skills, and sometimes their material resources in rural income-generating projects. The Latin Agricultural Cooperative in Beaverton, Ontario, and the Earthshare Cooperative in Kleefeld, Manitoba, both run by Salvadoreans, are among a number of community-shared farms in Canada, so called because, by paying in advance for a portion of a season’s harvest, customers share the risk of the enterprise with its owners.

Launched in the early 1990s, the two projects are supported by non-governmental agencies that market their organically grown produce to over 230 people in the Toronto area and 120 in Winnipeg. Earthshare was also assisted in obtaining a grant from the federal government by the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, which started the farm as an experimental “welfare diversion” project. But the cooperatives face serious hurdles, ranging from inexperience with Canada’s soil and climate to having to educate customers about the slower growth and smaller size of organic produce. The Beaverton cooperative has been further handicapped by the higher cost of renting land in Ontario and by crop failures in two consecutive years. Unlike its Manitoba counterpart, it has not yet produced salaries for its eight members. With neither group able to purchase its own land, the future of both cooperatives looks uncertain.