James Min emigrated to Canada from South Korea 13 years ago. Like many Korean immigrants, he found it hard to find employment when he arrived. He spent three years working menial jobs before finally opening his own business.
Now, Min is the owner of the Robson Relax Centre, a massage studio located in the food court of the Robson Public Market in downtown Vancouver.
Min sits at a table talking to the owners of a nearby Korean restaurant. In this mid-sized food court, only two tables are occupied. At one table sits a paying customer, at the other is Min and his fellow business owners.
Min has owned the Robson Relax Centre for 10 years now, but he is not so relaxed these days. He said that this past year has been “very slow.”
“Because of the recession a lot of businesses are having trouble,” said Min-Jung Kwak, an expert on Vancouver’s Korean community who teaches immigration at Ryerson University.
Many Canadians are feeling the effects of the global economic downturn, but Korean immigrants, despite being well educated for the most part, are experiencing even greater hardship than most.
The recession has compounded their challenges by increasing the level of competition for employment and decreasing the viability of Korean-owned businesses, which have traditionally helped new immigrants integrate into the labour market while they are learning to speak English.
Koreans face different challenges than other immigrant groups. Approximately 20-per-cent of all immigrants to Canada arrive as skilled workers and principal applicants. That figure rises to almost 60 per cent by adding dependents and spouses. This is compared to 91-per-cent of Korean immigrants to the country, who arrived under the economic class, which is defined as individuals selected by Citizenship and Immigration Canada for their “skills and ability to contribute to Canada’s economy.”
Despite the fact that a majority of Koreans arrive as economic immigrants, many of them face challenges integrating into the Canadian labour market. The 2006 census showed a 9.5-per-cent unemployment rate among the Korean population in Vancouver, compared to a 7.1-per-cent rate for all visible minorities and a 6-per-cent rate for the city as a whole.
Min said the biggest challenge he faced when coming to Canada was not knowing how to speak English, which made it hard to find a job with established Canadian firms – and when they do it is often at entry level. A City of Vancouver study on the Korean community found that among employed immigrants, 39 per cent are working in low-wage sales and services positions and many more are self-employed.
“They are highly educated but they are not good at speaking English,” said Kwak. “And, of course, for many immigrants their credentials are not recognized in Canada, so that’s another issue too. Most of them are having trouble finding good employment.”
The recession has made it even harder for Korean-owned businesses, as many of them are situated in distinct enclaves around Metro Vancouver and face steep competition between one another. “At this moment, Korean businesses, like restaurants, have much less numbers of Korean customers,” said Vancouver-based real estate agent Michael Lee, adding that some people are trying to limit eating out.
An additional strain for some Korean families is the fact that many families retain a foothold in Korea for economic reasons. Often, the father or breadwinner of the family will stay and work in Korea, sending money to his family in Canada.
Between two countries
In an era of increasing globalization, monetary changes can have a profound effect on cross-national families. The value of the South Korean won (the Korean currency) dropped 34 per cent in the past two years to 1,084 won to the dollar (Cdn) from 810 won. This means that it’s more expensive to support families living in Canada. According to Kwak, this has led to an increase in the number of people returning home to Korea.
Caren Kim is a Vancouver resident who emigrated from Korea in 1998 to go to school. She is now living in Vancouver with her brother, while her mother spends part of her time in Korea and the other part of her time in Vancouver.
“Goose father means a father who travels between the home country where he works and abroad where his family stays,” said Kim. “My Dad is a goose father too because he mainly stays in Korea to provide for the mortgage and so on. I haven’t seen him for three years.”
The reduced value of the Korean won combined with a faltering global economy has also led to a noticeable decrease in the number of Koreans looking to buy property in the Lower Mainland. “It’s almost like you having a cold shower. You’re showering with warm hot water and then suddenly the temperature changes to cold,” said Lee, of the current state of the real estate market.
“It used to be I was very busy meeting a lot of potential buyers, but now lots of time I spend time for potential sellers.”
However, despite the growing challenges faced by Korean immigrants, Lee remains optimistic for the future. “Most of them are very confident about the Canadian economy and particularly Vancouver. Most of them are very favorable. Most of them are happy to be here, to live here, including my family. It will be fine,” said Lee.