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Women, immigrants bearing the brunt of economic toll from pandemic: Report

Almost 100,000 women aged 20 and up have exited the labour market entirely, compared with fewer than 10,000 men, says a report co-authored by Desjardins and RBC.
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Elisa Cardona, who was laid off from her job at Pacific Gateway Hotel, poses for a photograph outside the hotel in Richmond, B.C., on March 11, 2021.

For the last seven years, Elisa Cardona has worked as a hostess at the Pacific Gateway Hotel near Vancouver, greeting guests at the breakfast restaurant and helping servers when needed. With the job, Cardona, a single mother who immigrated to Canada from Mexico nearly two decades ago, had been able to afford a comfortable lifestyle for her and her two children. 

But when the pandemic struck last March, she and the hotel’s other employees, many of whom are women and immigrants, were laid off. With a lack of travel weighing down bookings, the hotel has refused to commit to bringing its workforce back, leaving workers like Cardona to fend for themselves with no end in sight.

“I’m on the verge of going homeless if things continue this way,” Cardona said. “Even if I had enough savings, I’m looking at a long way to get back to work.”

Canada’s tourism industry has been devastated by the pandemic, with a full recovery not expected for at least several years. But COVID-19 has taken an especially difficult toll on women, immigrants and youth, who make up an outsized share of the tourism industry, according to a report released Monday by Destination Canada, a Crown corporation that promotes domestic tourism.

The report highlights the pandemic’s toll not only on a particular sector of the economy, which shed 500,000 jobs in 2020, but also its disproportionate impact on the economic well-being of certain communities.

For example, immigrants comprise 26 per cent of Canada’s tourism workforce, compared with 23.8 per cent of the total labour force, the report says. In addition, more than 30 per cent of the jobs in tourism are held by Canadians aged 15 to 24, compared with 12.7 per cent of the total workforce, it says.

In travel services, the business sector most impacted by COVID-19, women make up 70.7 per cent of the workforce, the report says. Women employed in accommodation and food and beverage services, two other sectors within tourism, comprise 60.3 per cent and 57.7 per cent of total employees in those areas, respectively.

In response to the layoffs at their hotels, Cardona and other workers in British Columbia launched a campaign this week called “Unequal Women,” an effort to help women employed in the hotel industry keep their jobs. The campaign, which is led by Unite Here Local 40, the hotel and hospitality workers’ union, says the hotels have permanently laid off workers even as they anticipate an eventual recovery.

The job losses in the tourism industry, if sustained for long periods of time, could lead to further economic struggles for laid-off workers. In particular, women and any other group that is experiencing prolonged bouts of joblessness may find it more difficult to re-enter the workforce once the economy picks up again, said Dawn Desjardins, vice president and deputy chief economist at RBC.

“The longer you remain unemployed, the more risks are generated with respect to an erosion of your skills,” Desjardins said. “The networks you set up when you are working, those networks also erode.”

In a report co-authored by Desjardins, RBC found that women have been disproportionately affected by job losses since the start of the pandemic, echoing Destination Canada’s findings. Almost 100,000 women aged 20 and up have exited the labour market entirely, compared with fewer than 10,000 men, says the report, which was released this month.

Meanwhile, the tourism industry faces a long road to recovery. Eve Pare, president and chief executive officer of the Hotel Association of Greater Montreal, said she isn’t expecting a meaningful rebound in hotel bookings before 2022. 

At the start of the pandemic, her organization’s members were forced to lay off about 90 per cent of their staff, many of whom are youth, women and immigrants. But when business finally picks up again, she is worried that the industry may struggle to find workers, as laid-off employees are forced to seek work elsewhere during the pandemic.

“We were in a labour shortage before,” Pare said. “Are they going to come back? I’m not quite sure.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2021.

Jon Victor, The Canadian Press