Newcomer women 'empowered' to work in food industry

The Immigrants Working Centre celebrated International Women's Day by getting students certified to handle hazardous materials in the food industry.

These women celebrated Women's Day by getting certified to handle hazardous workplace chemicals

Students and volunteers held up placards to celebrate the best parts of being - or knowing - a woman.

The instructor holds up a small marker cap while explaining the volatility of a certain chemical. 

"Cesium reacts explosively when exposed to air. Even an amount this big would explode... like a grenade."

Many of the students hum, shaking their heads before a translator even has to repeat it in Arabic. The word 'grenade' needs little translation.

At the Immigrants Working Centre (IWC) in downtown Hamilton, many newcomers to Canada attend classes like this one for six hours a day to ready them to join the workforce and be able to support their families. Many of them have fled war and poverty, and they are excited to start making their lives in Hamilton.

A certificate can be really meaningful if you have not had one since grade school or high school.- Elizabeth Webb, assistant director of the Immigrants Working Centre

Today is certification day for the food industry cohort - one of three newcomers can be part of at IWC - which is primarily filled with women.

The WorkLINC food industry program spent International Women's Day getting students certified in the brand new globally harmonized Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), offered for the first time at the IWC.

WHMIS is a new identification system that classifies chemicals or materials by the danger they pose - using a small, universally recognized pictogram. And it will be mandated by the Labour department by December 2018, replacing the earlier Canada-specific WHMIS that has been standard practice since the '80s.

Proper training 

"In any restaurant that you go to, there are tons of chemical products that are used in cleaning, disinfecting, washing dishes, certain oils or sprays.

"So you have to have the proper training to know what to do in case a fire was to break out, or what medical attention you should seek if exposed," explained Bo Ozegovic, instructor for the certification course and labour market liaison for the IWC.

The certification will allow this group of men and women to get a jump on being employable anywhere in the restaurant or food management industry and keep themselves and their colleagues safe.

The class is being taught simultaneously in English and Arabic, with an interpreter, to accommodate newcomers still catching up with their English skills.

Faryal Karim, who moved to Hamilton with her three sons in 2015, is excited to work with food again as she has for most of her life in Iraq and Greece. (Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)

The cohort consists of students of Syrian, Iraqi, Vietnamese and Burmese backgrounds, with varying degrees of educational and professional experience from their home countries.

Halima Ali has been part of the cohort for five weeks, but she loves to meet new people, saying it helps her feel part of the community.

And although she's never cooked on a large scale before, she thinks being a mother of five children offers plenty of experience.

Eager to support family and kids

"I just want to learn the language quickly and be able to help my family and my kids," she says with the help of a translator, just before her youngest -- a 3-year-old -- briefly escapes from daycare to see her. "Maybe when my kids are a little older."

She readily rattles off a list of Syrian foods she loves to make at home. "But my husband, he likes to barbeque," she says with a laugh.

On the other hand, Faryal Karim moved to Hamilton almost two years ago from Greece, where she had lived for 8 years after fleeing Iraq, and was a personal cook to different families in both countries.

She says she is excited to be able to earn for the family again.

"I didn't go to school past the sixth grade," she says. "This is exciting. I want to work with food and help this wonderful country."

Women's Day messages

Elizabeth Webb, assistant director of the IWC, says all their programs are open to newcomers of any background, though the WorkLINC began largely to meet the needs of Syrian newcomers last year in order to bridge their transition into the Canadian workforce.

"There is a big range (of experience), but while we have folks who are very skilled in their specific professions, they may not have had a lot of formal schooling," she says. 

The class breaks for a small lunch to celebrate International Women's Day, and share important messages to commemorate the occasion. 

Labour market liaison Bo Ozegovic and translator Raghad Abdellatif lead a course on WHMIS certification for food industry hopefuls at the Immigrants Working Centre (Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)

One woman is proud because she gets to learn. Karim holds a sign saying, "I am a woman. I raise generations."

Even the allies pay tribute. "I am brave because my wife stands with me," says one man, whose wife is part of the class too. Another holds a sign saying he misses his mother, still in a refugee camp in the Middle East. There's a wistfulness that takes over the room.

Webb says there was more to the significance of the course than just offering women access to specialized training.

"For women, when they arrive in Canada and they're looking for work, getting a certification is really important. A certificate can be really meaningful if you have not had one since grade school or high school. That sense of achievement is really important, especially as it builds confidence."