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Raising Other People’s Kids

Issue: 74 Section: Canadian News

December 20, 2010

Raising Other People’s Kids

Filipina women speak out against exploitation under the Live-In Caregiver Program

by Esther Hsieh

Foreign live-in care-givers nurture other people's children, often at the expense of their families back home. In addition, they receive little opportunity to build a life in Canada. Photo: Shira Ronn

VANCOUVER—Jocelyn Vergabera’s high cheekbones swell as her lips pull back in a disarming smile. She says her job at Tim Hortons is a big improvement from the years she spent working as a live-in caregiver in Shaughnessy. But while the twinkle in her eye is a sign of her vitality and friendliness, it also masks the torment of a long road towards a better life—one which is far from over.

In the last seven years Vergabera has only seen her children by webcam, and she is worried that she won’t recognize them.

“I want to touch them, I want to hug them, I want to make up all that time that I haven’t given them. I have looked after other children; I have kissed and hugged other people’s children but not my own,” she says.

Vergabera’s situation is common for Filipina women coming to Canada under the Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP). The LCP, officially established in 1992, issues a temporary work visa valid for up to four years to a qualifying applicant, who is expected to board in her employer’s home while working as a live-in caregiver for children, disabled or aging persons. In 2005, Filipina women accounted for 95.6 per cent of the live-in caregivers in Canada. In 2006, 21,489 workers held a work permit under the LCP program.

The way Canada’s LCP appears on paper appeals to Filipina migrant workers: it provides for defined working hours (eight hours per day), a good salary (minimum wage), and most importantly, the opportunity to become a landed immigrant after completing two years of work.

But the reality for many of the Filipina women who enter under the LCP includes hours of unpaid overtime, living in constant fear of their employers, and facing years of separation from their own families while they wait for their immigration papers to be processed.

The federal government undertook a review of the LCP in 2008–2009. As of April 2010, participants have four years to complete the required 24 months' work as full-time live-in caregivers (previously it was three years), participants can use overtime hours to complete the program in as little as 22 months, and the second medical exam required to apply for permanent residency has been eliminated.

As well, employers are now required to include working hours and wages in their employee contract and they are responsible for paying for their employee’s processing fees and airfare to Canada as well as for providing private medical insurance until their employee’s provincial coverage is activated.

In April 2011, the government will implement a more rigorous assessment of the validity of an employer's job offer job offer and introduce a two-year ban from the program for abusive employers.

Advocates at the Philippine Women Centre (PWC) say these changes will not stop the exploitation and are calling on the federal government to scrap the LCP altogether, saying it’s a blemish on Canada’s human rights record that promotes a cycle of poverty for Filipina migrant workers.

The live-in requirement of the program makes these women vulnerable to exploitation, explains Charlene Sayo, who is the Executive Director of the Philippine Women Centre of BC.

“How do you regulate a private home?” asks Sayo. “They’re working in their employer’s home where the power relation is well established.” This power relation is also recognized by the federal government in their official response to a formal recommendation to make the live-in condition of the LCP optional:

The live-in requirement is a vital component of the LCP. Although there are Canadians qualified to work as caregivers, there is a shortage of those willing to work as live-in caregivers.

Vergabera understands why Canadians find this type of work undesirable.

Her story as a live-in domestic worker started in 1994. Desperate to escape an abusive husband and support her three children, Vergabera left her home in the Philippines to work abroad. She first went to Saudi Arabia as a live-in domestic worker where she was never allowed to leave the house and was paid $150 per month.

After four years she returned to the Philippines desperate to see her children. “I didn’t even recognize them,” says Vergabera in a pained voice. However, as much as she wanted to stay with her children she soon realized that the reasons she left had not changed.

Ten months later she went to Taiwan, a more liberal country with a much higher salary. She worked two jobs, was on call 24/7 and never had a day off, but with a monthly salary of $900 she was able to care for her own children as well as pay for all of her siblings to go to college.

Then one fateful day in Taipei, Vergabera met a fellow Filipina migrant worker who told her about the LCP program in Canada.

The possibility of reuniting her family in Canada was like a dream for Vergabera. Using all of her savings, she paid the $3500 processing fee to a Philippines-based agent to handle her paperwork.

Sayo says this money exchange is one of the reasons the Canadian government is not motivated to eliminate the LCP, despite the documented systemic exploitation it creates. Through the LCP, the government is attempting to solve the childcare crisis in the private sector instead of investing in universal child and elderly care; something that would benefit all Canadians, instead of just those who can afford a live-in caregiver. Not only do these women pay agency and application fees to come to Canada, they’re often well-educated and equipped with skills Canada didn’t invest in.

When Vergabera arrived in Canada she was surprised to discover she would be keeping only $900 out of the promised $1,400 monthly salary after room, board and taxes were deducted. Worse yet, when she described her living circumstances, they were not that different from those in Saudi Arabia. Her employer was an affluent family in Shaughnessy who forced her to work unpaid overtime, forbade her to have a TV in her room and rarely let her leave the house, which they kept alarmed.

Vergabera knew her employer was violating her rights, but she didn’t feel that she could fight back. “As a live-in you can’t assert yourself because you don’t want to screw up your application,” she explains. “You swallow it, the bad words and unpaid overtime.”

After so many years of sacrifice, she wasn’t willing to jeopardize her chance to reunite her family in Canada by standing up for her rights.

The employer-specific work permit issued under the LCP is another condition that makes these women vulnerable to exploitation. If an employee wants to seek a new employer, she has to apply for a new work permit, which can take many months to process. She often doesn’t have savings to tide her over while she waits, because all her money has been sent back to the Philippines to support her family. Time spent waiting also eats into her four-year time limit for completing her 24 months' work as a live-in caregiver, and it just extends the time she’s separated from her family.

For this reason the PWC is also advocating that in the short-term the LCP change its employer-specific work permit to an open one, as well as grant landed status upon arrival. “Give them a fair start in Canada, don’t let them come in on losing ground, these women are already vulnerable to begin with,” says Sayo.

With the dream of reuniting her family, Vergabera bit her tongue and persevered with her employer. In 2008 she completed her mandatory two years' work as a live-in caregiver and applied to become a landed immigrant. She has been waiting since. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the normal processing time is 16 months, but Vergabera says she has peers who have waited up to 10 years to be processed.

And while Vergabera’s dream of a family reunion is shared by many women in the LCP, UBC professor Dr. Geraldine Pratt cautions that it can be a difficult process.

Pratt’s research found that for women in the LCP it takes five to six years to bring their families to Canada. Re-establishing relationships after years of separation is complicated, especially when a family is struggling to survive and the children are trying to adapt to a new culture. This stress is reflected in a high drop-out rate for Filipino children, which Dr. Pratt says is worrying for a community that values education highly.

“The Filipino community has the highest educational level of any immigrant group, and what we may see is a radical downward educational and social mobility,” explains Pratt.

This is compounded by the fact that the LCP de-skills its participants. About eighty percent of Filipina women in the LCP have postsecondary education; many are trained as registered nurses, midwives and teachers. But most end up trapped in a cycle of survival and never manage to leave entry-level jobs in the service or health sectors.

Since completing her work requirement for the LCP, Vergabera has found a new job at Tim Hortons. Even though she’s still struggling, she’s much happier now that her rights in the workplace are respected.

In the meantime, she is anxiously waiting for the day she can hug her children again, which she hopes will be next year. They are adults now, and she’s warned them that living in Canada can be a tough experience. Despite their professional degrees, she knows that they’ll probably also be serving coffee, fighting to survive. But at least they’ll be fighting together.

Esther Hsieh is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist. The article was originally published by the Vancouver Media Co-op.

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Comments

The Employer

The Employer paying the airfare is a huge concern.

With fewer employers willing to pay the airfare from the new rules in place to bring over a caregiver the LCP will slow down immensely.
How can the Government have the employer pay the airfare without guarantees. There is nothing to stop the caregiver leaving a family lets say in Saskatchewan and move to a large city. We have witnessed this many times over the years.
All the Government says is that those are the chances the Employer has to take. Such a lame excuse.

So many Caregiver Agencies here in Canada are now no longer in business. A lot of bad agencies are gone, which is good, but many dependable and trustworthy agencies are also not in business because the LCP has slowed down so much with all the red tape both in Canada and at the Embassies over the past year. It only will get worse.

This has made unscrupulous agencies overseas to charge even higher prices to caregivers and take the highest bid for the

Agencies here have a pulse of what is happening overseas from people wanting to come to Canada as a Caregiver. We see the problems now happening.
A recent article in the Vancouver Sun:
Similar to marriage fraud, a number of overseas caregivers are using Canadian families to gain entry into the country with no real intention of working for the family long term. And Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is giving them the green light to do so.

One would assume that the Canadian government expects caregivers to work for the family long term, given that changes to the Live-in Caregiver Program require the family to pay all recruitment fees, airfare, medical and workers' compensation.

The caregiver has no legal obligation to work for the family, however. Most agencies are well aware of caregivers who, once they clear customs, don't even make it to the employer's home. Citizenship and Immigration Canada or the Canada Border Services Agency usually respond to concerns by saying that "there is not much we can do."

Kenney has made it clear that he takes marriage fraud seriously, as Citizenship and Immigration Canada states: "There are some people who think marriage to a Canadian citizen will be their ticket to Canada. It is a crime for foreign nationals to marry Canadian citizens or permanent residents only to gain entry into Canada." Yet there is no issue with caregivers using Canadian families to gain entry to Canada, with no intention of working for them.

What is the difference?

Correspondence from Kenney's office states that "this is a risk the Canadian family is expected to accept when hiring a caregiver."

Should Ottawa place such risk on a family? Since when does a government gamble with the money of their citizens? And that's exactly that this is. Many employers are blue-collar families, with two working parents who are simply in need of child care.

Usually when you purchase something, you are protected under the Canadian consumer protection laws. But Kenney essentially says to those who need caregivers: "Sorry, our government has no child-care options, though you can use the Live-in Caregiver Program. But if you do, you are expected to risk paying thousands of dollars for a caregiver who has no legal obligation to work for you. If the caregiver fails to follow through, you can take legal action against her!"

How would a family go about doing this? Once the caregiver leaves, the family has no means of finding her unless they hire a private detective.

By implementing these extremely unfair and unbalanced changes, Kenney is giving overseas caregivers the green light to use a family to enter Canada with no interest in working for them.

Also, with these changes there has been a noticeable decrease in caregivers arriving, which means the local market has significantly dried up. There is a huge Canada-wide shortage of caregivers, and many families are not able to gamble thousands of dollars on a caregiver who may not want to work for them, or who simply may not work out.

Unfortunately, Kenney, when considering changes to the Live-in Caregiver Program, neglected to get a balanced view of the issues. Rather then doing the fair thing as the minister in charge of the LCP and listening to all parties, he choose to only listen to the caregiver groups and their stories.

Kenney did not meet with one Canadian family to get their view, or speak to those families who have been exploited by caregivers. He did have countless meetings and conference calls with caregiver groups.

So much for balance!

Exploitation goes both ways, but Kenney refuses to acknowledge this.

What about the hard-working family who decides to hire a caregiver, waits for months and months, pays all the fees, spends money to renovate the nanny's room, and then is left without any child care because the caregiver wants to work closer to friends?

Many families are asking why Ottawa is not at all interested in protecting their citizens, or looking out for their best interests.

That is really the million-dollar question that Jason Kenney and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have yet to answer.

Equality

I do agree there must be justice on both sides - it is only fair for both the women coming to work in Canada are given CLEAR TERMS from the beginning, and that Canadian families do have a commitment for a certain amount of time.

Either way, strong human rights abuses have happened through this program. This is unacceptable by any stretch of the word.

It reinforces a power relationship of the rich and the poor.

I agree that this program should be terminated due to the high incidences of human rights abuses and slave-like power relationships.

In terms of immigration/caregiver programs/refugee cases: Do we truly seeing aspiring immigrants or refugees as fellow human beings? This is often not the case. This is where our thinking is fatally flawed. We must see that every person has equal value.

The topic is much more complicated than this, but we must come down to this basic principle if we ever want to truly create a world of equality. We are all part of the same world. I pray we never forget this.

Canada is still the only

Canada is still the only place that will accept these women as immigrants and not just as migrant workers. In all the other countries, if the woman becomes sick or old, she has to go back to the Philippines. In Canada, after two years, she can work towards becoming a citizen, with all the rights and responsibilities.
The two years as a caregiver are a good opportunity to learn the ropes of Canadian society. She can save more money than the average Canadian, even after paying (low) room and board and (high) taxes. She can include her immediate family in the permanent residency application (other potential immigrants have to wait for years and years to get into Canada as a family).
She can get rid of bad habits learned in other countries, such as the "slave" mentality, or a very destructive mentality whereby she only had to live to send money back to her family, think about the next holiday in the Philippines and never plan constructively for a larger future. She has time to learn about her rights as an employee and future citizen.
What she must learn as well, is how difficult it will be to live in Canada as a first generation immigrant. She will live in great poverty, never be able to save much money to get ahead,because once she moves out on her own and no longer has the security of the cheap room and board, extras-(for instance, many employers will pay for drivers' education classes)-and structured living/working rhythm, she will be working to survive - very much like she was in the Philippines.
It won't be until her children have had children that they will have reached the level she may have been dreaming of when coming to Canada.
But in the end, every generation of immigrants has had huge disappointments and have had to give up their fantasies in order to survive in a country that is, in the end, worth living in.

That Canada is the only

That Canada is the only nation in which these migrants can become immigrants is not a substantive argument against the merits of re-configuring the LCP regulations.

Without exception, the current regulations are highly susceptible to loopholes that easily permit for the encroachment of the workersé rights. Whether they are migrants or immigrants, Canad constitutional underpinnings are forged by a committment to human rights.

That Canada is still ``better and easier`` for immigrants than their home country appears to emulate the postulations of George Fitzhugh, a (very compelling in his era) proponent of slavery pre American Civil War, who proferred that the conditions for slaves in the South were progressively getting better and that hardships are simply necessary.

Missing the point...

Do you people not know how to look at the big picture? The point is the LCP exploits women from Third World countries like the Philippines to support people in First World countries like Canada. Being Canadian, you should be upholding women's rights, no matter where they come from.

Now Rob, if you think your mother, sister, or daughter should be prone to abusive working conditions also then you should have them go through a similar labour program, after all, it's in the name of work right?

I agree with both of you that Canadian families are being vicitimized too by having to pay exuberant prices to sponsor an LCP worker.

The solution is not to reform the LCP but to create a UNIVERSAL CHILDCARE SYSTEM. Something that goes beyond immigration laws. It should be the right of every family to have decent healthcare, and the right of every woman to not be exploited.

SCRAP THE LCP!

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