Domestic Problems

by Sandhya Singh


“Here, in Canada, in the 21st century, we have a program that is clearly violating human rights.” So says Cecilia Diocson, executive director of the National Alliance of Philippine Women in Canada (NAPWC).


“Here, in Canada, in the 21st century, we have a program that is clearly violating human rights.” So says Cecilia Diocson, executive director of the National Alliance of Philippine Women in Canada (NAPWC).

The program to which she refers is the Live-in Caregiver Program, or LCP. It is a component of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program that brings transnational workers into Canada to work as caregivers. However, the LCP is unique among other temporary foreign worker programs in that it offers workers a coveted opportunity to apply to become permanent residents after they have completed the program’s mandatory work requirements.

Diocson argues that three of the Live-in Caregiver Program requirements in particular constitute human rights violations: “First, it imprisons women in the
     Fall 2012               homes of their employers. Secondly, they can only work for one employer—the rest of Canadian workers can work wherever and for whomever they want. And finally, these women are indentured labourers—they can only be caregivers—to children, the elderly or people with disabilities. They have no choice.”

With a lack of affordable daycare in many centres and an increasingly aging population, Canada’s need for qualified caregivers is evident. Yet the conditions imposed on the approximately 35,000 women currently working in Canada under the LCP continue the discriminatory practices that have been entrenched in the program since it was formalized as the Foreign Domestic Movement Program in 1981, and then as the LCP in 1992. Recent reforms have done little to change the fundamentally exploitative nature of the program.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada stipulates that once accepted under the LCP workers must complete 24 months or 3,900 hours of full-time work as a caregiver within four years of their arrival. As Diocson claims, the stipulations amount to a form of indentured servitude, restricting workers from seeking types of work other than caregiving for the duration of their contract. If they need to change employers due to job loss or intolerable conditions, they must obtain a new employment contract and apply for a new work permit.

Canadian immigration policy presents another barrier to caregivers. It does not include caregiving as a skilled occupation for which points can be awarded to prospective immigrants. However, LCP applicants are still required to prove that they have the equivalent of a Canadian high school diploma, proficiency in English or French and six months of full-time training or one year of recent paid work experience as a fulltime caregiver or in a related occupation. Paradoxically, while their skill level is not valued enough to allow them to apply for landed immigrant status, they must demonstrate that they have acquired these very skills in order to apply under the LCP. Thus, even though the requirements they must meet to apply under the LCP are the same as those needed to apply for landed immigrant status, LCP applicants are not eligible to apply directly for landed immigrant status until they fulfill their contracts.

That this double standard is applied to a program that accepts mostly women reveals a form of sexism in Canada’s immigration policy. A critique of the LCP entitled “Trafficking in Women in Canada: A Critical Analysis of the Legal Framework Governing Immigrant Live-in Caregivers and Mail-Order Brides” was written in 2000 and funded by Status of Women Canada. The authors, Université Laval law professors Louise Langevin and Marie-Claire Belleau, recommended, “The allocation of points under the selection criteria for immigrants would have to be modified to recognize, on the one hand, the social and economic value of both domestic work and caring for children, the elderly or [people with disabilities], and the experience of these workers on the other.”

In plain terms, the wages and working conditions for live-in caregivers reflect the undervaluing of domestic work. While domestic workers must be paid the appropriate provincial or territorial minimum wage, their room and board is deducted from their income (Quebec is the only exception), effectively reducing their earnings to less than minimum wage.

As Langevin and Belleau state, “Bringing underpaid women from disadvantaged countries enables others in industrialized countries to free themselves from household chores, enter the labour market and achieve a certain degree of economic independence. … The [Live-in Caregiver] Program therefore challenges the ideals of equality of the feminist movement. It also relegates household chores and child care exclusively to women.”

The program effectively deepens divisions along class lines and creates a two-tiered system in which upper-middle-class people purchase private services while working and middleclass people line up for limited public daycare spaces. It is estimated that there are only enough regulated spaces for 20 percent of Canadian children under five years of age.

It also compounds the problems that have resulted from the privatization of some health care services, as caregivers who are trained nurses in their home countries sometimes end up providing unregulated medical care to the elderly, administering services usually performed by registered nurses but at a fraction of the pay.

Diocson’s earlier assertion that the LCP involves discrimination is supported by the conclusions of professors Langevin and Belleau. They note that since all foreign workers with a valid work permit are guaranteed the same protection as citizens under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and since the LCP “results in the discriminatory treatment of [immigrant caregivers] based on their sex, race and national or ethnic origin, [it] violates Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights.” The legal experts believe the LCP was also not justifiable under Section 1 of the charter because in certain cases it may “authorize limitations on rights and freedoms.”

A charter challenge seems like a logical next step, until the financial cost is considered. Indeed, there has been discussion by second-generation Filipino-Canadians about a charter challenge, but a lack of resources makes it unlikely.

The fact that the large majority of workers who enter Canada under the LCP are women of colour adds another dimension to the gender and class divide perpetuated by the program. The LCP provides a cheap, captive labour force and is consistent with Canada’s history of using immigrants and temporary workers to address labour-market shortages and of using women of colour in particular to perform domestic work. As far back as the 1700s and 1800s, black women who escaped enslavement (or were slaves brought to Canada by American settlers), as well as colonized Aboriginal women, filled the demand. And while domestic workers from Europe were granted permanent residence upon their arrival in the early 1900s, when women of colour have been recruited, whether from the Caribbean in the ’60s and ’70s or from the Philippines as is currently the case, they have encountered regulations that either outright deny them the opportunity to immigrate permanently or restrict their ability to do so.

In examining the LCP and its predecessor programs, Karl Flecker, national director of human rights and anti-racism at the Canadian Labour Congress, concludes, “After nearly four decades of federal initiatives designed to import primarily racialized women to work as caregivers in domestic settings, Canadian policy has consistently raised the standards for admission and ensured the conditions for workplace exploitation and abuse remain untouched.”

Yet it continues to be argued that the Live-In Caregiver Program provides an opportunity for people from economically disadvantaged countries to escape poverty and to become Canadian permanent residents. Unfortunately, the issue is far more complex, involving global economic factors that remain unaddressed.

Since the early ’90s, the majority of caregivers have come from the Philippines. This has occurred because the Philippine government has a policy that encourages the export of the labour of its citizens. Sending Filipinos to work abroad has been seen as a solution to high rates of poverty and unemployment resulting from structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and the IMF. This, in turn, has resulted in the decimation of local agriculture and manufacturing. Filipino women have been forced to seek work overseas as domestics in order to send money home to support family members. Remittances from overseas Filipino workers exceeded $20 billion at the end of 2011, representing nine percent of the GDP of the Philippines. For these reasons, as well as for the precarious conditions under which they are forced to live and work, Filipino-Canadian activists have challenged the idea that the LCP represents a good opportunity for poor women of colour.

One problem that has received attention is the vulnerability of live-in caregivers and the potential for their financial, occupational and sexual exploitation.

“Caregivers are right up against the wall when it comes to completing the required number of work hours within 48 months,” notes Geraldine Pratt, professor of feminist geographies at the University of British Columbia. “If they become ill or need to change employers, they may end up staying with the last employer, regardless of abuse and exploitation, in order to complete the program requirements and apply for permanent resident status.”

Pratt has worked closely with the Philippine Women Centre (PWC) in Vancouver over the last 15 years to examine the impact of the program on caregivers and their families. The centre has found repeated incidents of caregivers being subjected to various forms of abuse. These have included being made to work extra hours with no overtime pay; being forced to stay on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week; being assigned duties outside the scope of their contracts; being prevented from leaving their employer’s residence; having their travel documents confiscated; and being subjected to verbal abuse or physical or sexual assault.

In one high-profile case of “nanny abuse” in 2009, a Liberal Member of Parliament was accused of underpaying two caregivers, withholding their passports and ordering them to perform various tasks unrelated to caregiving. Last October, CBC Vancouver reported a similar story of two caregivers who were physically abused, monitored by surveillance cameras, denied permission to leave the employer’s home and not paid overtime.

Research conducted by the NAPWC reveals that, in addition to the abuse and exploitation live-in caregivers may experience at the hands of individual employers, live-in caregivers also encounter systemic discrimination when they try to access benefits and social programs to which they should be entitled. Even though income tax, employment insurance and Canadian Pension Plan contributions are deducted from their salaries, their claims for employment insurance, medical coverage, workers’ compensation, housing and subsidized child care are often denied due to their temporary status. Ironically, if a worker loses her job and is awaiting the approval of a new work visa, she is technically without status and her access to benefits is further compromised.

Advocacy work led by Filipino-Canadian activists has resulted in a number of changes to the regulations and administration of the program over the years, including some announced by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney in December 2011. These include standardized work contracts, recognition of overtime hours and the provision of open work permits as soon as the program’s obligations are met.

Nonetheless, Diocson is indignant about these token reforms.

“It doesn’t matter what reforms are made,” she insists. “Our research has shown that the caregivers’ rights are consistently violated, simply because they are so vulnerable and their status is so precarious.” Diocson contends that as long as the three main program requirements—mandatory live-in, employer-specific work permits and a restriction to caregiving work—remain in place, the LCP is a de facto form of modern-day The position of the NAPWC is that problems with the program could be mitigated if caregivers were granted landed immigrant status on arrival, a provision for which there is ample historical precedent. This would allow caregivers an opportunity to immigrate, but they would be free to choose where they live and work, like other Canadian landed immigrants.

Canada’s immigration policies make this impossible. Applicants are allowed to enter as landed immigrants under one of three classes—independent, family or refugee. For caregivers to qualify under the independent class, they must earn enough points based on their education, skills, occupation and other factors. Since caregiving is not a recognized occupational category, it does not earn any points. Even for caregivers who are not mistreated, complete the program and successfully gain landed immigrant status, the price is often very high.

“People have the impression that it’s an even exchange,” Pratt says, “that if someone works for two years as a live-in caregiver, and in exchange they get to immigrate and bring their families, it’s a fair deal.” Because the period of hardship is perceived as short, she says, many find it acceptable.

However, Pratt’s research indicates that it takes an average of seven to eight years for caregivers to complete the immigration process and bring their families to Canada. After they have completed their work hours, which may take the maximum four years, they must then apply for permanent resident status and apply to sponsor family members. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the processing time for this is 32 months, but in reality it often takes longer.

Recent changes to the program mean that caregivers will be able to get open work permits and gain the freedom to choose different employment as soon as they have completed their mandatory work hours. But this will not affect the length of time they are separated from their families. Pratt believes that when people understand the program’s long-term impact on domestic workers’ families they no longer find it an acceptable option for providing care for Canadians.

Lengthy family separations have deep social and economic impacts. In collaboration with the PWC Vancouver and the NAPWC, Pratt created a 2009 play entitled Nanay, in which she used transcripts from interviews with caregivers and their children to expose the multi-generational impact of the program on Filipino-Canadians. The long period of separation creates dysfunctional family relationships, she says. Caregivers’ children are often doubly traumatized, first when they are separated from their mother and again when they immigrate and must leave behind the grandparent or relative who cared for them. This is because Citizenship and Immigration Canada defines family, in this case, as one’s spouse and dependent children. The extended family member who cared for a child during the mother’s absence cannot be included in her sponsorship application.

Pratt’s research shows that, like many immigrants, many children of domestics who are eventually brought to Canada experience displacement and lack a sense of belonging. Statistically, the high school dropout rate for Filipino youth in Vancouver is higher than all other non-Aboriginal youth.

As well, if children immigrate between the ages of 12 and 16, they have significantly lower educational attainment compared to their counterparts who are either younger or older upon arrival. In fact, Pratt found that this cohort ended up with lower levels of education and fewer job skills than their mothers.

Therefore, the social and economic marginalization experienced by domestic workers often continued into the second generation. Similarly, the mothers face deskilling, downward economic mobility, ghettoization in low-wage occupations and low levels of civic and political engagement.

Remarkably, LCP regulations discourage caregivers from upgrading their skills and education. They are only permitted to take non-credit courses without a permit and must apply and pay $125 for a study permit to take courses longer than six months. As the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website reminds caregivers hoping to apply for study permits, “it is important to remember that [they] are in Canada to work as a full-time live-in caregiver.”

What needs to be done? Pratt contends that the program needs to be framed as a migration program so that families are not separated. If families arrive intact, they are likely to have two income earners and would therefore be better able to afford housing, effectively removing the economic justification for living in. Pratt believes the reason the live-in requirement has been maintained is that it allows employers to pay less than a living wage, making it affordable from the employer’s perspective. One suggestion to improve wages is to allow more than one employer family to pool resources and offer caregivers better wages. This is currently impossible, since the terms of the LCP prohibit a caregiver from working for more than one employer at a time; to do so could result in deportation.

This is just one reason why the Philippine Women Centre in Vancouver has called for the abolishing of the LCP for more than 20 years. Today, a number of other organizations, including the NAPWC, the Filipino Canadian Youth Alliance, SIKLAB Canada (a Filipino migrant workers organization) and the Filipino Nurses Support Group, have joined their campaign.

Diocson asserts that divisions within the women’s movement along class lines are part of the long-standing problems facing live-in caregivers. “Individual feminists have supported us, but the women’s movement is largely composed of middle-class feminists who have not really wanted to talk about scrapping the LCP and who are not willing to take on the issues of working-class women. This has to be part of the discourse of the women’s movement.”

The call for change, she says, must include a call for universal, accessible child care and a national housing strategy. Furthermore, it must be understood in the larger global economic context.

“The LCP totally fits the neo-liberal agenda of globalization and capitalism,” according to Diocson. “It’s very functional to the Canadian state.” She believes the reliance on the cheap labour of foreign domestic workers has become entrenched as part of the Canadian economy.

Diocson insists that a rights-based analysis of the problem is incomplete and says an understanding of the structural and systemic impact of globalization is essential in order to understand the full impact of programs such as the LCP.

The analytic framework must be from the perspective of the working class and must be led by the women’s movement, she adds. After all, she says, gender is a class in itself—women experienced the first division of labour.

To address this gap in the discourse, class privilege must be examined and challenged. “I’m not afraid to make privileged women uncomfortable,” says Diocson. “Struggle means discomfort as well as conflict. And from this conflict emerges something positive, something which unites us. If liberation belongs only to the privileged, it is not true liberation. We want to belong to the struggle of all women.”

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