Canada is heading for another stain on its human rights record. Nearly three years ago Prime Minister Stephen Harper had to apologize for placing a head tax on Chinese immigrants, calling the government’s actions a “grave injustice.”
The country is going down the same path with its program for foreign nannies which brought over 59,000 caregivers to Canada in the last decade.
The Live-in Caregiver Program seems like a sweet deal. Participants are fast-tracked through Canada’s backlogged immigration system with the promise of permanent residency after working 24 months as a nanny.
Over 8,200 British Columbians became permanent residents through the program in the past seven years—but it comes at a too high of a personal and political cost.
On the personal front, nannies face labour exploitation, years away from family, and isolation.
Dinah Estigoy, a former nanny from the Philippines knows how bad it is. She spent two and a half years caring for four children and doing all the household chores for $5 an hour—well below B.C.’s $8 an hour minimum wage. Some days she worked 16 hours without overtime.
Caregivers have little recourse against unfair employers. The long delays in issuing work permits create disincentives to leave an unfair employer. Waiting for a new permit means lost income, a longer wait for residency, and potential deportation. Many nannies decide to stick it out and take the abuse.
Loneliness is also a constant companion for caregivers who leave their families behind. Government funds for foreign workers are scarce, so there’s little help for nannies trying to connect to their new communities.
On the political front, Canada’s foreign caregiver programs offends both international conventions on rights and its own citizens.
Canada signed the United Nations (UN) Charter of Human Rights, which is supposed to protect fair working conditions and pay. However, the Canadian government leaves the exact labour standards to the provinces. Workers in British Columbia have the right to collect overtime after eight hours and to 32 consecutive hours off once a week.
Other countries have started to mobilize around the rights of migrant workers like nannies. Twenty-two countries, including the Philippines, signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants and their Families.
The convention requires states to apply national laws about hours, rates and work conditions equally to migrant and domestic workers. Not one Western country has signed on. As a country that relies heavily on foreign workers and embraces multiculturalism, Canada should jump at the chance to enhance the rights of migrants.
While the Canadian government might be able to overlook international conventions, it can’t ignore the political mobilization of its citizens.
It was citizens, not the courts or international bodies, who got the ball rolling on the head tax apology. Former Vancouver East MP Margaret Mitchell brought up head tax repayment on behalf of two constituents in 1984. The movement became a national campaign spearheaded by the Chinese Canadian National Council.
Pressure for change
The same momentum for change is starting to build for Canada’s foreign nanny program – particularly within the Filipino community as more than 90 per cent of nannies migrate from the Philippines. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney held a roundtable with Vancouver’s Filipino community two weeks ago and there are hints that changes to the program are being considered.
It’s about time because of the sheer number of people affected by the program, with nearly 35,000 caregivers and their families becoming permanent residents in the past six years. They are just a small part of the fast-growing Filipino community in Canada, which is set to become a political and social force in Canada. The Philippines is now Canada’s top source for immigrants and temporary workers.
Eighteen per cent of Canada’s Filipinos live in Metro Vancouver according to the 2006 Census. In New Democrat MP Don Davies’ riding of Vancouver-Kingsway 11 per cent of the residents are Filipino. As his party’s Deputy Critic for Citizenship and Immigration, Davies has been advocating for reform.
“That is the one thing that will unite the Filipino community because everyone is attached to at least one caregiver,” said Maria Javier, Executive Director of Vancouver’s Multicultural Helping House.
Solutions proposed by advocates and community members include: scrapping the live-in requirement, allowing families to come immediately, speeding up the work permit process and; granting immediate conditional permanent residency.
These proposals are important and would help improve the quality of life for caregivers in Canada, but they don’t address the underlying reason why Canada has allowed these injustices to go on for so long.
Foreign nannies and caregivers for the elderly are filling the gaps left by Canada’s patchwork child care and home health care “systems.”
Of course, there are good employers, but the system makes exploitation too easy. Even with a good employer, nannies are separated from their own children and face inequitable access to settlement services.
In finding substitute care for children and the elderly, we face another legacy of an unjust immigration program. Children and caregivers deserve better – as do Canadians.
Foreign nannies and caregivers may seem like a good way to do child care on the cheap, but Canada needs to start reading the small print.
It’s like mother always said: If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.