Caregivers or victims?

By Jessica Murphy on December 18, 2008

Pinay, The Filipino women’s organization in Quebec, have opposed aspects of Canada’s Live-In Caregivers Program for over a decade.

In November, the McGill school of social work released a report that supports what they’ve been saying for years: the women coming to Canada as domestic workers are often victims of exploitation.

“We’ve observed that dialoguing with the government agencies that we needed a concrete basis so they look at us like we know what we’re talking about,” said Pinay president Evelyn Calugay. Her organization helped the researchers contact the domestic workers and hope they can leverage the findings into real modifications to the program.

“I’m hearing through word of mouth that the government is talking about changes,” she said. “And we want a positive change.”

The federal government set up the program in 1992 to address the shortage for affordable domestic care for the elderly and children. Applicants are brought to Canada to work in the homes of federally approved employers. Once they complete 24 months of work within three years, they can apply for permanent residency, which is often automatically approved.

The eligibility requirements are stringent: the women need post-secondary education, formal training and work experience in domestic care. Many who apply are qualified nurses and 81 per cent of them have a university education.

Once in Canada they work for minimum wage, earning an average of $250 to $300 a week. Due to the nature of the work - the women work alone in a private residence - it’s difficult to enforce the labour code. So while Pinay ran a successful campaign in 2001 to get domestic workers protected by Canada’s labour laws, ensuring they’re enforced has proven more challenging.

The report suggests that for many of the domestic workers, their basic labour rights are continually being violated in small ways.

“Some of the responses - about conditions, overtime pay - were not a surprise,” said Calugay.

The report highlighted problems with pay - pay wasn’t increased along with the minimum wage, the women were not paid for overtime, and pay wasn’t received on time. The hours were long and a lot peripheral work, like housework, taking car of pets, grocery shopping, and cooking, went unpaid. There was also wear and tear on their bodies from the physical aspects of their work: burns, back pain, and adverse reactions to chemicals in cleaning products.

Sixteen per cent of the women reported being victims of physical and emotional abuse.

“Their priority is to survive,” said Calugay. “Certain abuses they accept. They’re used to living a difficult life, for them, it’s normal. But coming to the first world, some ideas should change, especially about violence. They consider violence getting seriously hurt.”

Other problems are institutional. New arrivals are not covered by medicare in the first three months in Canada and the women aren’t entitled to compensation under the Quebec Workplace Health and Safety Commission, commonly know as CSST.

And even while many of the women enjoy healthy, safe and caring work environments, Calugay argues that their nursing training are being wasted.

“It’s cheap labour and they lose their skills,” she said.

Calugay came to Canada in 1975 as a nurse, when the professional order of nurses in this country had an agreement with its counterpart in the Philippines.

“During that period, many of the English hospitals were manned by Filipino nurses,” she said.

Sometime in the 1980s, that changed, recalled Calugay. “That was the period when the vision of the world changed - globalization, free trade agreements. In our country, cheap labour is the supply. It was the political economy that changed things.”

Canada fills the demand for affordable live-in care and the Philippines gets the money the women send back to their families without having to address its own socio-economic problems, she said.

“Its mutually beneficial for both governments, but not the workers.”


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