Jan. 14, 2021

New study examines impact of pandemic on immigrant women care workers

UCalgary sociologist Naomi Lightman embarks on project as winner of Thelma Margaret Horte Memorial Fellowship in Women and Society

Last October, during one of her daily press conferences, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer,  addressed the plight of care workers working in long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the course of her address, Tam cited the work of University of Calgary sociologist Dr. Naomi Lightman, PhD, directly quoting the assistant professor — much to Lightman’s surprise.

Lightman, pictured above, felt a tremendous level of gratification as she heard Tam read her words on a national stage: “The most vulnerable workers provide the most essential services to the most vulnerable clients under the worst working conditions.”   

“When I heard our chief public health officer taking note of the importance of care work and the implications of the pandemic for these workers," says Lightman, "it felt like my research had really resonated.” Indeed, it had. But Lightman’s work in this field has only begun.

This month, Lightman begins her latest research project, examining the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on immigrant women care aides working in Calgary’s long-term care facilities. She undertakes this project thanks to the Thelma Margaret Horte Memorial Fellowship in Women and Society, a $10,000 annual research award that was established for the Faculty of Arts in Horte’s memory. Horte was a determined advocate of women’s rights, committed to advancing the cause of women in society and fighting for equality in the workplace.

“I’ve been researching immigrant women care workers in Canada for the past seven years,” says Lightman. “We know that these workers are disproportionately immigrant, racialized women — often Filipino and Black women, in particular. I’ve been focused on their health and well-being, as well as that of their families and communities. I’ve looked at the financial implications of this work. Do they have savings? Are they eligible for benefits? How do they fare? When they reach retirement age, are they financially able to retire?”

Even before COVID-19 reared its oppressive head globally, Lightman says care work was often described as “3D work.” “It’s dirty, it’s difficult, and, more than ever before during these pandemic times, it’s potentially dangerous,” she says. “It’s work that, for the most part, Canadian-born people are not interested in doing. These are hard, poorly paid jobs which don’t usually have adequate employment protections. They’re also jobs that people who don’t necessarily have other employment opportunities are able to do.”

Another factor contributing to the high number of immigrant women in care work is Canada’s federal caregiver program, says Lightman, with an immigration stream devoted to bringing in care workers from other countries. These individuals are regularly focused on making enough money to have their families join them in Canada — a costly and arduous process which typically keeps them stuck in a cycle of low-wage work, where they struggle to get ahead financially.

“They're disadvantaged in so many ways, yet they’re doing essential work which we as a society rely on, so we can be assured that our family members are safe and well taken care of," says Lightman. "And yet, in the sociology of work, these types of low-wage workers have been ignored. At least in the past.

“It’s only now, with the pandemic, that people suddenly seem to care about care. Because of the current crisis in long-term care this has gained media attention. As with so many things during the pandemic, I think the situation is exacerbating existing inequalities and shining a light on them.”

Partnering with the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, Lightman has begun interviewing immigrant women care workers, with a focus on how their work, their security and their lives have been impacted by the pandemic. She seeks to give these marginalized women a voice.

“These women are not just cogs in the machine,” says Lightman. “They are the ones living this reality every day. I anticipate they will have ideas and suggestions in terms of government policies, funding, what leads to the best outcomes for the residents of these care homes, and what we need to do as we transition, ideally, to a post-pandemic world. I want to document their daily realities and challenges and I want to hear what their ideas are for reforming the system going forward.”

Lightman plans on translating her findings into a policy report, which she hopes will lead to positive changes for immigrant women care workers.

For now, she takes heart that, as the vaccine begins rolling out in Alberta, health-care aides are among the first to be receiving it.

“This seems to indicate some recognition of the physical risks these women are engaging in,” Lightman says. “It doesn’t address their poor employment conditions, but it is, at least, a positive sign.”

Naomi Lightman is the 2020-2021 recipient of the Thelma Margaret Horte Memorial Fellowship in Women and Society.