Twelve years ago, when Sultana Jahangir came to Canada, she found that many women in her Scarborough community were living in poverty and couldn’t get jobs. She made it her mission to help.
This story is part of Living Generously, a Globe and Mail series, in partnership with Sun Life, focusing on Canadians who are giving back to their communities and making a difference in people’s lives.
“I came to Canada in 2006 from Bangladesh, via the U.S., with my husband and two daughters. I left there because I’d been a student activist and an advocate for the rights of people living in slums, and my family worried the military government might target me. I also wanted a better life for my children.
We found an apartment in Scarborough where there were a lot of South Asian immigrants. I found a job in the non-profit sector, but soon realized that women in my community weren't looking for jobs and they didn't think there were services for them to help them find one.
In 2007, I started the South Asian Women’s Rights Association. I got a group of women together to meet with Maria Minna, our MP at the time. We also talked with Toronto Community Housing, which provided us with a room, and COSTI Immigrant Services gave us money to organize workshops. We invited different community and immigrant organizations to talk about the services they had to offer.
At first, we thought we would help women create small businesses. Many South Asian immigrant women come to Canada as skilled migrants, so they’re highly educated with master’s degrees in health, education, science and engineering. They just don’t have the work experience.
We needed to address more systematic barriers. The women in my community are getting jobs in low pay areas, such as in manufacturing, especially food and cosmetics manufacturing and packaging. They were coming to us, talking about how their work was impacting their mental and physical health. For instance, if they would get laid off, their companies wouldn't submit their records of employment for employment insurance. And if they complained about it, they wouldn't get hired again.
We decided to help women advocate for their rights and remind employers of their obligations to their workers. When women in the community are laid off, we tell them, 'now’s the time to go for training.’ We also connect them to free career counselling services and find them programs that have job possibilities. We’ve helped many women find better paying jobs as dental assistants and early childhood education providers.
But we knew that to really affect the lives of women in our community, we had to change policies. We started handing out surveys, conducting focus groups and holding public forums to find out what the main challenges were in these women’s lives. We interviewed hundreds of women. In 2017, we produced a report with labour policy reform recommendations that we presented to university faculties, unions, politicians and other civic leaders.
Our recommendations included that non-unionized workers should have access to third-party representation, that employers should have financial disincentives against scheduling workers for only a few hours, and that women in precarious sectors should have access to the City of Toronto’s child-care subsidy even if they don’t always meet the 25-hour work week criteria because of their more casual work.
Although these policies haven’t been adopted yet – it’s only been a year since we presented the report – we know people are listening and we’re optimistic that something will change.
What has changed so far, though, is that women in our community now feel empowered because they know they have all of us behind them. We’ve created a sisterhood.”
– As told to Wendy Glauser
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