IRSST - Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail

Occupational health measures in small companies in Montréal's urban centre hiring immigrant labour - Strategies favourable to development and maintenance


This study of strategies to promote occupational health and safety (OHS) measures in small Montreal firms employing immigrant labour arose out of the concerns of occupational health professionals at the de la Montagne health and social services centre (CSSS), the main partner in this project. In companies that rely on immigrant workers to meet their labour needs, management of OHS practices in an ethnoculturally diverse environment is an unavoidable issue. Out of these concerns emerged the following questions:  what strategies, what discourse, can lead to successful management of OHS in small businesses with a substantial immigrant labour force? How can an occupational health and safety culture be created in such companies? Are responsibilities and obligations understood in the same way when the owners/managers are themselves of immigrant origin? To answer these questions, the team focused on OHS management dynamics, drawing on earlier research conducted in small businesses in Québec.

Three sources of data were used for this research project: semi-directed interviews of OHS respondents from small businesses; semi-directed interviews of CSSS occupational health professionals working in these companies; and a self-administered questionnaire completed by workers. Our sample included 28 companies, each employing 10 to 50 workers. Two-thirds of the companies in our sample have substantial immigrant labour forces. The other third employ mainly workers of Canadian origin, and these companies constituted our control group. In addition to the research, three types of knowledge-transfer activities were tested: a scientific seminar; validation of case studies based on best OHS management practices in these small businesses that employ immigrants; and a one-day think tank on OHS practices for immigrant workers.

Homogeneity and pluriethnicity proved key indicators in the data analysis. In more than half of the companies (15/28), a major part of the labour force at all three hierarchical levels (executives, supervisors and workers) was immigrant and from the same country of origin. In a second group of companies (6/28), the work force was also relatively homogeneous at all three hierarchical levels, but in these companies the vast majority of the labour force was of Canadian origin. In a third group of companies (7/28), the labour force was mixed, with executives and supervisors mainly of Canadian origin but the workers from various countries. Though the scope of the homogeneity was surprising, it is actually just a simple manifestation of immigrant social systems of economic integration.

The composition of the labour force had an impact on OHS management dynamics and on the participation of immigrant workers in the OHS measures. Executives and supervisors of immigrant origin have more of a paternalistic than an equal labour/management representation approach to OHS. This was reflected in the composition of OHS committees, which were largely composed of executives. In addition, the immigrant workers felt it was more important to show their loyalty to an employer who had given them the opportunity to enter the labour force than to behave in ways that expressed criticism of their work environment. Their lack of knowledge of OHS laws and regulations led to some distortion of practices fundamental to an OHS culture, such as equal representation, temporary assignment, risk analysis, etc. This distortion was particularly marked in companies where the composition of the work force was mixed at the three hierarchical levels. These findings did not surprise the occupational health professionals who participated in the scientific seminar, who underlined the tendency to underestimate intercultural differences in the understanding of preventive OHS practices.

The research results gave rise to a number of recommendations that were the subject of a knowledge-transfer activity, a one-day think tank on OHS practices for immigrant workers. The first consensus of the day was that a company has a moral obligation to treat all workers equitably and to implement measures to ensure they can exercise their rights without discrimination. It is crucial that all workers be aware of the following in particular: their right to refuse to do work they deem dangerous; their right to reassignment if pregnant or exposed to a contaminant dangerous to them; their right to compensation in case of occupational injury; their right to work reintegration after a period of convalescence; and their right to protection against any form of reprisal. The moral obligation to treat all workers equitably and to implement measures to ensure they can exercise their rights applies to workers as well as employers who are themselves immigrants, and a sequence of actions for each step in the process of labour force integration has been developed for workers and company executives.

Our research also highlighted eight best practices in the 28 small businesses that comprised our sample, initiatives that address both OHS management practices and ethnocultural diversity. Among the eight case studies discussed in our research project, those that illustrate organizational resilience are of particular interest. Despite the financial crisis, some small businesses developed francization programs and updated their OHS practices during the period when production was slow and thus were able to continue to employ workers, the vast majority of them immigrants, destined for layoff. Other initiatives included adapting training to meet the needs of immigrant and allophone workers.

All project participants as well as the CSSS teams support continuation of the work to set up a committee that would bring together OHS professionals dedicated to working with immigrant workers. An intercultural approach is needed in OHS communities of practice, as immigrant labour is the solution to the chronic problem of labour shortages in small businesses. This is especially important as small businesses, key economic players in Canada and in most countries of the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development (OCED), are the first employers of immigrant workers.

Additional Information

Category: Research Report
  • Sylvie Gravel
  • Gabrielle Legendre
  • Jacques Rhéaume
  • Gilles Séguin
  • Charles Gagné
Research Project: 0099-6820
Online since: September 18, 2013
Format: Text