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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.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.