Migrant Caregivers: An Invisible Workforce

By Daniel Tseghay

In January of 2014, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) launched a pilot initiative called Project Guardian which would search for and detain migrant caregivers in British Columbia and the Yukon who work under the table, without a work permit.

When the West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association filed an Access to Information request, they discovered that 33 cases were being investigated. The results included a few removal orders, and “voluntary” deportations under threat of  criminal prosecution. Few people knew about this until recently. “I didn’t know about it and we work with caregivers,” said Erie Maestro, Migrante-BC Coordinator in an interview with RankandFile. In one case, Maestro says, “the CBSA came to the employer’s house, took the caregiver, who was caring for an elderly person, without any consideration for the person she was caring, who then had an accident.”rsz_1tumblr_inline_nfax82r2e31rqyxnz

The CBSA apprehending caregivers is only one of the final acts in a series of constricting and exploitative conditions facing workers.

A caregiver’s work permit is tied to a single employer and they have to work consistently for two years during the temporary stay in Canada, lasting 4 years. If they do not fulfill those conditions they’re prevented from securing permanent residency, a pathway which is not guaranteed to begin with. This means workers will “endure whatever hardship there is”, according to Maestro. “It takes a long time to get work. It depends on your network, on your agency.” It is very common to change employers. Often, considering how long it takes to bring a caregiver to Canada, employers no longer need their services, so caregivers can reach Canada without an employer, making their introduction one of insecurity and fear.

A new, potential employer has to pay $1,000 for a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA), which can often take around 6 months to process. “Changing employers means your time is ticking,” says Maestro. If a caregiver wants to fulfill the conditions for permanent residency, they can’t wait for too long.

But sometimes the work conditions are so bad that caregivers must leave their employer. While the Canadian government waived the live-in requirement, turning the Live-In Caregiver program into simply the Caregiver program, tens of thousands of caregivers across Canada still live in their place of employment. As a result, the largely Filipino women are “vulnerable to abuse – either to violations of employment standards, physical, verbal, or even sexual abuse,” according to Maestro. “They’re invisible to the general public.”

When they leave their employer, and while the wait to find an employer willing to do the paperwork, they find that they still have to work. “Do you want them to steal, to sleep on the streets? If they have no social networks, where do they go? Caregivers are forced to work under the table.”

And when they work under the table, they are then considered to be without status, to be residing in Canada “illegally”. The CBSA then subjects them to deportation.

The allegation is that caregivers are committing abuses. But who’s targeting the abusive employers? They aren’t paid on time, the right amount, for overtime pay. They work long hours, and are mistreated.”

Maestro wonders if the treatment of caregivers, who are overwhelmingly Filipino, by CBSA is purposeful. “Is it racial profiling? Is the Filipino community being targeted?” The CBSA, for instance, knows that migrant workers aren’t always aware of their rights, of the fact they have a right to talk to a lawyer.

Canada is disposing of workers who are not only vulnerable to abuse but who come here despite leaving so much behind. Of the 33 caregivers the writers of a report that came out last year, Domestic Labour and Exploitation: The Case of the Live-In Caregiver Program in Canada, spoke with 16 of them have one or more children which remained in the Philippines. The writers describe the caregivers as usually being overqualified, arriving with degrees and diplomas they cannot use in the Philippines. As a result, a number of them have been migrant workers even before reaching Canada, having worked throughout Asia and the Middle East. They come to Canada out of economic desperation. “I didn’t have a choice,” one caregiver is quoted as saying in the report, “it was a question of survival.”

Many arrive saddled with debts from employment agencies charging upwards of $5,000, which they borrow from banks or family. Many caregivers, separated from family, mistreated at work, fearful that they may not gain permanent residency, experience depression.

Where we are right now with our treatment of racialized caregivers is part of a longer tradition. While the Live-In Caregiver program has been around since 1992, iterations of the program have been in place much longer. “Caregiving work has been here since the 1800s,” says Maestro. “But the domestic workers came from Europe. They had no problems. When we look at Jamaican, black women from the Caribbean [who were a large part of the caregiving workforce until the mid-80s], it became different. They had no status. They didn’t come as landed immigrants.”

Maestro, along with other advocates, therefore calls for a major restructuring of the Caregiver program, starting with the provision for tied work permits, and concluding with permanent residency for all workers. If they are good enough to work here, to take care of the elderly and children, then they should be able to gain citizenship and secure the worker rights many of us enjoy soon after landing.

“When they say it can’t be done, that domestic workers can’t come as landed immigrants, we say it has been done before,” says Maestro. “They just had a different colour.”


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