Immigrants as Settlement Workers: An Inquiry into their Experiences of Work and Workplace Learning at Immigrant Service Agencies in Canada

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My research investigates the transition to work and workplace learning experiences of immigrant settlement workers (ISWs) at immigrant service agencies (ISAs) in Canada. Informed by intersectionality and institutional ethnography (IE), I investigate how ISWs’ labour market integration and learning at work are constructed in institutional relations, organizing and shaping the coordination of individuals’ standpoint at local sites. In examining ISWs’ transition to work, I first trace the trajectory of immigrants becoming ISWs and then analyze how race, gender, and class intersect and shape their experiences of seeking employment in institutional complexes between governmental organizations, employment institutions, and ISAs. In exploring ISWs’ workplace learning in ISAs, I analyze ISWs’ emerging learning opportunities in formal and non-formal settings and how their learning can be situated in cultural and relational contexts. More importantly, my research scrutinizes how textual ruling power is translocally developed and distributed to mould ISWs’ daily practices in the workplace. Eighteen ISWs were interviewed from three different ISAs in Western Canada. Based on findings from life history interviews and analysis of various governmental and organizational documents, my investigation reveals three major components of ISWs’ transition to work and workplace learning experiences. First, in deconstructing the institutional complexes, I found that credential assessment organizations deny and devalue immigrants’ qualifications and work skills as irrelevant, filterable, and neglectable. Moreover, labour market hiring acts as a second filtering mechanism that strains immigrant’s previous credentials and professional skills as different, deficient, or dubious. These institutional complexes are perpetuated by the intersectional identities of race, gender, and class and hooked into translocal social relations that coordinate and shape immigrant’s daily practices of labour market integration in the local setting. Second, in adopting the concept of workplace subjectivity, I identified three kinds of ISW subjectivity in the workplace. First, constructive subjectivity emphasizes how immigrants’ life histories and their prior learning and working are deemed to be social assets that enrich and enhance ISAs’ services to newcomers. Professional subjectivity integrates ISWs’ subjective knowledge from formal, non-formal, and informal learning into their personal histories with objective knowledge, constructing individualized knowledge acquisition and creation. And Cultural subjectivity is the negotiated sense of self that emerges through ISWs’ workplace interactions with colleagues and clients from different cultural backgrounds. My analysis of cultural subjectivity reveals the importance of power relations in the ISA workplace and the effect of those relations on ISWs in terms of their yielding aspects of their own self-culture in order to assume Canadian normative workplace values, on the one hand, and imposing cultural discrimination against certain social groups, on the other. Third, by unpacking the idea of outcomes measurement in the ISA workplace—with a focus on the key concepts of IE and Foucault’s governmentality—I find that outcomes measurement has become a technology of power, an essential workplace knowledge that produces ideal ISWs, who are self-caring, self-regulated, self-accountable, adaptable, and productive. This production process manifests textual ruling relations in workers’ pedagogical learning, textual-mediated learning, and relational learning, thus establishing in them certain ways of thinking, doing, and acting. Participating in, interacting with, and practicing the textual objectives of outcomes measurement legitimizes ISAs as an apparatus for the reinforcement of governmental ruling power, neglecting ISWs’ learning intentionality and autonomy in the workplace.
Racialized immigrants, transition to work, workplace learning, immigrant settlement workers, immigrant service agencies, intersectionality, institutional ethnography
Liu, J. (2020). Immigrants as Settlement Workers: An Inquiry into their Experiences of Work and Workplace Learning at Immigrant Service Agencies in Canada (Doctoral thesis, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada). Retrieved from