Economic Insights
Business Ownership and Employment in Immigrant-owned Firms in Canada

by David Green, University of British Columbia; Huju Liu and Yuri Ostrovsky, Statistics Canada; and Garnett Picot, Institute for Research in Public Policy and Citizenship and Immigration Canada

Release date: March 21, 2016 Correction date: (if required)

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This Economic Insights article addresses the extent to which immigrants contribute to economic growth. For the first time, the business ownership and job-creation activities of immigrants are addressed. A longer, more detailed study is also available.Note 1

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The extent to which immigrants contribute to economic growth is one of the central questions in immigration research. Newly created data enable researchers to address an important dimension of this issue for the first time—namely, the business ownership and job-creation activities of immigrants.

In the major immigrant-receiving Western countries, immigrants are seen as more entrepreneurial than the native-born population as they are more likely to be self-employed (Fairlie and Lofstrom 2013). This holds true in Canada (Hou and Wang 2011). Data from the Labour Force Survey indicate that in 2009, 17.5% of immigrants aged 18 to 69 were self-employed compared with 14.4% of the Canadian-born population. However, self-employment can mean many things, from owning and managing a large private incorporated company with many employees to pursuing an unincorporated activity a few hours a week after working at a full-time paid job. Until now, researchers have been unable to estimate the prevalence of immigrant-owned businesses and the number of jobs they create, mainly because of a lack of information on the immigration status of business owners. This problem has been solved in a new dataset created by Statistics CanadaNote 2 which is used to study these issues.

The types of businesses included in the study

Two types of business ownership are examined in this study.

  1. Private incorporated businesses: These privately-owned businesses are considered immigrant-owned if at least one owner is an immigrant. Owners with at least a 10% share of the company are identified in the study. Only Canadian-controlled private incorporated businesses with employees are included.
  2. Unincorporated self-employed: These self-employed individuals are unincorporated, and very few have employees. For just over one-half (54%) of unincorporated self-employed immigrants, their business is their main economic activity, accounting for at least one-half of their total earnings. These individuals are referred to as primarily self-employed. For the remainder, unincorporated self-employment is a secondary activity, and their earnings from paid employment exceed those from self-employment (see Appendix Table 1).

Ownership of publicly traded companies is excluded from this study because such ownership is typically widely dispersed and because stockholders are not considered entrepreneurs and typically have little direct effect on the day-to-day management and direction of a company. Ownership of foreign-controlled private incorporated companies is also excluded.

Immigrant business ownership during the first decade in Canada

There is a well-known assimilation effect regarding immigrant earnings, which sees earnings increase in the years after entry to Canada. There is a similar effect for business ownership and employment in immigrant-owned businesses, as immigrant business ownership and self-employment, as well as the number of associated jobs, increase with time in Canada. This could occur because immigrants acquire knowledge of business networks, sources of financing and business opportunities, and possibly because their wealth and assets increase over time. It may also be that some immigrants are ‘pushed’ into self-employment because of difficulties finding an appropriate paid job.

Among the 2000 immigrant entry cohort—the group of immigrants who became permanent residents in 2000—the number of immigrant owners of private incorporated businesses increased from 1,800 one year after entry (in 2001) to roughly 8,000 nine years later (in 2010). By 2010, 5.3% of immigrant taxfilers in the 2000 entry cohort owned a private company (Chart 1). This compared with 4.8% of the comparison groupNote 3 of taxfilers, composed mainly of persons born in CanadaNote 4 (right side of Chart 1). In short, after immigrants have been in Canada for a number of years, their propensity to own a private incorporated business surpasses that of the comparison group.

Chart 1  The percentage of immigrant taxfilers who are business owners, by years since immigration, 2000 and 2004 immigrant entry cohorts

Description for Chart 1
Data table for Chart 1 Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1 Years since immigration, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Years since immigration
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
percent
Unincorporated self-employed, 2004 immigrant entry cohort 10.8 13.4 15.9 17.4 18.3 19.6 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable
Primarily self-employed, 2004 immigrant entry cohort 6.3 7.6 9.0 9.7 10.4 11.1 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable
Private incorporated company, 2000 immigrant entry cohort 1.2 1.8 2.0 2.4 2.9 3.4 4.0 4.5 4.9 5.3
Unincorporated self-employed, comparison group, 2010 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable 16.1 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable
Primarily self-employed (unincorporated), comparison group, 2010 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable 7.5 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable
Private incorporated business, comparison group, 2010 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable 4.8

An immigrant can also be an unincorporated self-employed person. Here too ownership rates rise quickly with years in Canada. Among the 2004 immigrant entry cohort,Note 5 the incidence of unincorporated self-employment rose from 10.8% among taxfilers the first year after entry (in 2005) to 19.6% six years after entry (in 2010). By way of comparison, 16.1% of the comparison group was unincorporated self-employed in 2010. As with private incorporated business ownership, unincorporated self-employment among entering immigrants surpassed that of the comparison group after a number of years in Canada.

For many unincorporated self-employed immigrants, self-employment is not their primary economic activity. As noted above, 46% of the unincorporated self-employed immigrants hold paid jobs that provide the majority of their earningsNote 6 (Appendix Table 1). Much of this secondary self-employment—about one-half—is in real estate and rental and leasing, either in rental-unit ownership or in real-estate brokerage. The remaining 54% of unincorporated self-employed immigrants receive the majority of their annual earnings from self-employment—again, a group identified as the primarily self-employed.

Some 11% of immigrant taxfilers from the 2004 entering cohort were primarily self-employed six years after entry to Canada (in 2010), well above the 7.5% rate among the comparison group (Chart 1).Note 7

Immigrant business ownership and employment in immigrant-owned businesses in 2010

The results above highlight business ownership and self-employment among recent cohorts of immigrants. To gain a broader perspective on these issues, business ownership among immigrants who have been in Canada for 10 to 30 years—that is, those who entered Canada between 1980 and 2000 is now examined. They are referred to as longer-term immigrants. Again, the comparison group includes the Canadian-born plus immigrants who entered Canada prior to 1980.Note 8

In 2010, longer-term immigrants tended to be more entrepreneurial than members of the comparison group. About 5.8% of longer-term immigrant taxfilers were owners of private incorporated companies compared with 4.8% of the comparison group. The unincorporated self-employment rateNote 9 was also higher among longer-term immigrants than among the comparison group in 2010, at 22.3% and 16.1%, respectively. The result is the same if the comparison is restricted to the primarily self-employed, with rates of 11.6% and 7.6% among longer-term immigrants and the comparison group respectively. Hence, ownership rates are higher among longer-term immigrants than among the Canadian-born population. This has been observed for the self-employed, at least, in other Canadian studies (Hou and Wang 2011).

Generally speaking, private incorporated firms owned by immigrants tend to be smaller than those owned by their Canadian-born counterparts. In 2010, private incorporated firms owned by longer-termimmigrants employed, on average, about four employees.Note 10 Private incorporated firms owned by the comparison group employed seven employees, on average.

To assess the effect of ownership rates and firm size on employment in immigrant-owned businesses, a per capita job-creation rate is estimated.Note 11 For the longer-term immigrants, this rate is simply the number of jobs created through immigrant-owned private incorporated firms divided by a population-based estimate of the number of longer-term immigrants. In this case, the number of taxfilersNote 12 is used as a proxy for the population size. In 2010, about 0.170 jobs were created per longer-term immigrant through private incorporated companies, compared with 0.237 jobs per comparison-group member. So in terms of employment in immigrant-owned businesses, high business ownership rates among longer-term immigrants is offset to some extent by smaller firm size, resulting in a lower per capita job-creation rate.

But what about employment in unincorporated immigrant-owned firms? Only about 2.5% of unincorporated self-employed immigrants have employees, so these self-employed individuals create jobs for themselves, but few jobs otherwise. And, as noted earlier, almost one-half of the unincorporated self-employed rely on paid work, not self-employment, as their main source of earnings. Hence, individuals who rely primarily on self-employment for their earnings typically create one job each: a job for themselves. On this basis, per capita employment in immigrant-owned businesses is higher among longer-term immigrants than among the comparison group, since 11.6% of immigrant taxfilers have created one job for themselves (i.e., they were primarily self-employed) compared with 7.6% of the comparison group.

Overall, the level of employment within private incorporated businesses is lower for immigrant owners than for owners in the comparison group, while the opposite is true for employment in unincorporated businesses. This is the first time in Canada that such estimates of employment in immigrant-owned businesses, and the associated comparisons, have been presented.

Industrial distribution

Among immigrants who entered Canada since 1980, about one-half (52%) of immigrant-owned private incorporated businesses are found in five industries. In rank order these are: professional, scientific and technical services; retail trade; accommodation and food services; transportation and warehousing; and construction (Table 1). Immigrant-owned private businesses are more likely than those owned by the Canadian-born population to be in accommodation and food services, transportation and warehousing, and retail trade, and less likely to be in construction.

Among the primarily self-employed immigrants, about three-quarters are in six industries. In rank order these are: real estate and rental and leasing; administrative and support, waste management and remediation services; professional, scientific and technical services; health care and social assistance; construction; and transportation and warehousing. There is little difference between immigrants and the comparison group in the industrial distribution of these self-employed businesses, although the self-employed immigrants are more likely to be in transportation and warehousing.

Table 1
Percentage distribution of businesses owned by immigrants and the comparison group, by industry, 2010 Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage distribution of businesses owned by immigrants and the comparison group. The information is grouped by Industry (appearing as row headers), Private incorporated businesses, Primarily self-employed, Immigrants and Comparison group, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
IndustryNote 1 Private incorporated businesses Primarily self-employed
ImmigrantsNote 2 Comparison groupNote 3 Immigrants Comparison group
percent
Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting 1.2 4.8 1.9 11.5
Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction 0.2 1.2 0.1 0.2
Utilities 0.0 0.1 0.0 0.1
Construction 7.3 14.0 6.9 6.3
Manufacturing 3.9 5.4 1.4 1.2
Wholesale trade 5.3 5.4 1.0 1.0
Retail trade 11.2 9.6 5.6 5.1
Transportation and warehousing 8.5 4.5 6.6 2.5
Information and cultural industries 1.0 1.3 1.0 1.1
Finance and insurance 1.5 3.3 2.2 1.7
Real estate and rental and leasing 2.5 4.1 35.1 32.9
Professional, scientific and technical services 14.3 13.8 9.4 10.1
Management of companies and enterprises 0.6 1.7 0.0 0.0
Administrative and support, waste management and remediation services 3.6 4.6 13.1 9.0
Educational services 1.1 0.9 1.2 1.0
Health care and social assistance 7.2 6.1 7.7 7.1
Arts, entertainment and recreation 0.6 1.4 1.6 3.2
Accommodation and food services 11.1 5.1 1.1 1.0
Other services (except public administration) 5.4 6.4 4.2 5.0
Unknown 13.6 6.3 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable

Who are the immigrant business owners?

The likelihood of being a business owner varies across immigrants with different characteristics, including education, age, immigrant class, source country and gender. Earlier research on self-employed immigrants found that, in many countries, more highly educated immigrants are more likely to open a business than those who are less educated (Fairlie and Lofstrom 2013). Age matters, in part because one of the main predictors of business ownership is wealth. The lack of wealth accumulation among the young may hamper their ability to own a business, perhaps along with a lack of experience (Fairlie and Lofstrom 2013). Immigrants who enter Canada in the business class would be expected to have a higher propensity to be business owners than those who enter in the family or economic classes. And earlier research showed that immigrants from some source regions, notably Europe, have a greater propensity to be self-employed (Li 2001). Finally, men have traditionally had a greater likelihood of business ownership than women, although recently there has been a lot of interest in women entrepreneurs. The new Canadian data employed here generally support these broad findings.

While immigrants who are university educated are more likely to be private business owners than those who are less educated, the difference is small. Among immigrants who entered Canada since 1980, university-educated immigrants were about 1.5 times more likely to be private business owners and 1.1 times more likely to be primarily self-employed than their counterparts with a high-school education or less. And about one-half of the immigrants who were primarily self-employed and 41% of the private business owners had a high-school education or less. In short, immigrants from across the education spectrum participate in ownership.

In 2010, immigrants aged 45 to 54 were most likely to be private business owners, and those older than 45 were most likely to be primarily self-employed. But, again, business owners came from all age groups; one-half of both private business owners and the primarily self-employed were under the age of 45.

As with the comparison group, immigrantNote 13 men were far more likely than women to be owners of private incorporated businesses or primary self-employed. Indeed, men were over twice as likely to be business owners as women and accounted for two-thirds of all immigrant private business owners and 57% of self-employed immigrants in 2010.

Business traditions in the source country, and the related business experience prior to entry, can affect the likelihood of immigrants owning businesses. However, there was little difference in the prevalence of private business ownership and primary self-employment across most source regions. In 2010, between 5% and 7% of immigrant taxfilers from most regions owned a business, and between 11% and 16% were primarily self-employed. There are a few outliers, notably immigrants from Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia (the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries), where entrepreneurial rates in Canada were lower.Note 14

Immigrant class

The propensity to own a business or to be primarily self-employed also varies across immigrant class. Five classes are studied: business class, economic class, family class, refugees and other. The business class consists of programs for entrepreneurs, for the self-employed and for investors. During the past decade, roughly 80% of the immigrants in the business class were in the investor program. Immigrants in this program are expected to invest in the Canadian economy, although not necessarily to own a private company (Citizenship and Immigration Canada 2014). Immigrants in the entrepreneur program are expected to be business owners, as are those in the self-employed program. The economic class consists mainly of immigrants who entered under the Federal Skilled Worker Program, but also includes provincial nominees and immigrants who entered under other smaller programs. The family class is designed for family reunification; refugees enter Canada for humanitarian reasons; and the ‘other’ class includes any remaining small groups.

It is important to remember that for the economic and business classes, the data include not only the principal applicant (the family member assessed for entry), but also his or her spouse and children. While business class principal applicants may have a high propensity to own a private business, this may not hold for the spouses, who are also included in the statistics. For that reason, a few statistics shown in Table 2 are calculated based only on the principal applicants.

Table 2
Distribution and rate of business ownership, by immigrant class, 2010 Table summary
This table displays the results of Distribution and rate of business ownership Distribution, Private incorporated businesses, Primarily self-employed, All immigrants, Principal applicants and All
immigrants, calculated using percent and percent share of taxfilers units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Distribution
Private incorporated businesses Primarily self-employed
All immigrants All immigrants Principal applicants All
immigrants
All immigrants Principal applicants
percent percent share of taxfilers percent percent share of taxfilers
ImmigrantNote 1 class  
Family class 28.0 4.3 Note ...: not applicable 30.0 10.6 Note ...: not applicable
Economic class 43.5 5.0 6.2 36.7 9.8 11.1
Business class 12.1 9.1 15.0 9.4 16.4 25.5
Refugees 11.3 3.5 Note ...: not applicable 16.8 11.9 Note ...: not applicable
Other 5.0 3.0 Note ...: not applicable 7.2 10.1 Note ...: not applicable
All immigrants 100 4.6 Note ...: not applicable 100 10.8 Note ...: not applicable

As expected, members of the business class have the highest propensity to own a business or be primarily self-employed, but they are a relatively small group. Hence, most of the private business ownership and primary self-employment is associated with the other four classes, particularly the economic class. In 2010, about 9% of immigrant taxfilers in the business class owned a private incorporated company, and 16% were primarily self-employed. Hence, approximately one-quarter were involved in such entrepreneurial activity. This compares with about 15% of immigrant taxfilers in all the other classes. Interestingly, refugees were as likely to be private business owners or primarily self-employed as members of the economic and family classes (Table 2). In terms of the distribution of business ownership, the economic class is much larger than the other groups, so it accounted for the largest share of private business ownership (44%) and primary self-employment (37%). Because of the smaller size of the business class, it accounted for only about 12% of private business ownership and 9% of the primarily self-employed immigrants.

But again, the discussion above includes principal applicants and their spouses and dependants. If the analysis is restricted only to principal applicants, then 15% of the taxfilers in the business class owned a private business in 2010, and 25% were primarily self-employed (unincorporated). Hence, about 40% were involved in business ownership in a significant way in 2010. This compares with 17% among the economic class principal applicants in 2010 (Table 2).

In spite of not being selected for economic reasons, roughly 40% of the immigrant private business owners and 47% of the primarily self-employed were in the family or refugee classes. Immigrants from all classes participated in a significant way in business ownership and primary self-employment in 2010.

Conclusion

In the first few years after entry to Canada, immigrants understandably have relatively low rates of business ownership and job creation compared with the Canadian-born population. But these outcomes change quickly with years spent in Canada, so that after four to seven years, the propensity of immigrants to own a private incorporated business or to be unincorporated self-employed surpasses that of the Canadian-born population.

But while rates of private business ownership and unincorporated self-employment are higher among immigrants, average firm size is smaller among immigrant-owned private incorporated businesses than among similar firms owned by members of the comparison group (mainly Canadian-born). Hence, in terms of job creation the higher propensity for business ownership is offset by smaller firm size, so on a per capita basis the rate of employment in immigrant-owned private incorporated companies in 2010 was lower for longer-term immigrants than for the mainly Canadian-born comparison group.

For almost one-half (46%) of the unincorporated self-employed immigrants, self-employment is secondary to paid work. One-half of these secondary self-employment jobs are in real estate and rental and leasing, either as rental providers or brokers. For the remaining 54% of unincorporated self-employed immigrants, self-employment is their main source of earnings. But very few of these primarily self-employed immigrants have paid employees. Since the propensity to be primarily self-employed is higher among immigrants than among the comparison group, job creation by self-employment is higher among immigrants.

Immigrants who entered Canada in the business class had a higher propensity for business ownership (private or unincorporated self-employed) than those in the economic, family or refugee classes. However, the business class is quite small, so it accounted for only 11% of private business ownership and 9% of primary self-employment among immigrants in 2010. Immigrants in the economic class accounted for the largest share, at around 40%. Even though family class immigrants and refugees were not selected for economic reasons, they had about the same propensity to be private business owners or primarily self-employed as economic immigrants. These two classes accounted for a significant share (about 40%) of private company ownership and for 47% of primarily self-employed immigrants.

Finally, the propensity to be a private business owner or to be unincorporated self-employed varies depending on the immigrant’s age, education, source region and gender. But all of these groups were strongly represented in business ownership and self-employment in 2010.

References

Citizenship and Immigration Canada. 2014. Evaluation of the Federal Business Immigration Program. Ottawa: Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Fairlie, R.W., and M. Lofstrom. 2013. “Immigration and Entrepreneurship.” In Handbook of the Economics of International Migration, ed. B.R. Chiswick and P.W. Miller, vol. 1B, p. 877–911 . North-Holland: Elsevier.

Green, D., H. Liu, Y. Ostrovsky and G. Picot. Immigration, Business Ownership and Employment in Canada. 2016. Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series, no. 375. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11F0019M. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

Hou, F., and S. Wang. 2011. “Immigrants in self-employment.” Perspectives on Labour and Income 23 (3): 5–16. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 75-001-X.

Li, P. 2001. “Immigrants' propensity to self-employment: Evidence from Canada.” International Migration Review 35 (4): 1106–1128.

Appendix

Appendix Table 1
Average net self-employment income, T4 earnings and total earnings of unincorporated self-employed immigrants and non-immigrants, by quintiles of net self-employment income, 2010 Table summary
This table displays the results of Average net self-employment income Average net self-employment income, Average T4 earnings and Average total earnings, calculated using dollars units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Average net self-employment income Average T4 earningsNote 1 Average total earningsNote 2
dollars
ImmigrantsNote 3  
Lowest quintile -5,608 45,067 39,458
Low-middle quintile 1,017 30,651 31,667
Middle quintile 5,146 13,561 18,707
Middle-high quintile 11,249 6,269 17,518
Highest quintile 41,614 6,611 48,225
Non-immigrantsNote 4  
Lowest quintile -7,511 47,313 39,802
Low-middle quintile 321 37,457 37,777
Middle quintile 3,469 24,980 28,449
Middle-high quintile 11,091 13,910 25,001
Highest quintile 67,912 11,424 79,337
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