Foreign Workers

Domestic Exploitation

Thursday 24 April 2003, by Shannon DEVINE

Photo : © Dominic Morrissette

At 24 years old, Judy never imagined fate would find her scrubbing toilets in a foreign country, but necessity has meant otherwise. While her classmates finish their studies in the Philippines, Judy has dropped out to work as a nanny for a wealthy Canadian family under the government-sponsored Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP).

Judy arrived in Montreal with her mother Carmela (not their real names) last March to earn money for her family, who are struggling to stay afloat in the Philippines. Judy’s weekly pay cheque of $250 is equal to her entire family’s monthly income back home. This young woman is one of her country’s unsung heroes, migrant workers whose annual remittances make up eight percent of the country’s gross national product, according to the Philippine Central Bank.
So far Judy has been fortunate during her time here. Her employer is kind and treats her with respect - a rarity in the industry, as she has learned from speaking to her caregiver friends.

Carmela has not fared as well as her daughter. She changed employers within the first few months of her arrival, after Judy convinced her to leave her first boss. She worked from early in the morning until midnight, and was not granted her mandatory time off. Unfortunately, the second family also treated her cruelly, using racial slurs and taking extra care to make her life difficult. "Those people were not treating her as a real person. They treated her as a slave," said Judy.
Rights advocates in Canada and the Philippines have called the LCP a modern-day form of slavery. At first glance, the program seems attractive.

Established in 1991, it allows participants to become permanent residents after fulfilling a 24-month work contract within three years. Open to both women and men, the program targets those who would not otherwise qualify as immigrants, either as refugees or entrepreneurs. Women from the Philippines, mostly between the ages of 25 and 29, make up approximately 75 percent of LCP participants.
Although the program calls for a 49-hour maximum work week, the live-in aspect allows employers to call on the caregivers at any time of the day. Many domestics work up to 70 hours a week, their overtime often unpaid.
Immigrants do the job Canadians don’t want

What purpose does the LCP serve? It fills holes in the Canadian labour pool, said Citizenship and Immigration Canada representative Susan Scarlett. "There is no shortage in Canada of people that are willing to work as caregivers in a live-out capacity," she explained. "This is a program to respond to a particular labour market shortage, set up to allow people who are seeking to bring someone to Canada to work as a caregiver." Scarlett maintained that any worker with a problematic employer could file a formal grievance.

Cynthia Palmeria of PINAY, a Quebec-based Filipina women’s organization, disagreed, saying that out of fear, many women will not come forward to file a complaint. "A lot of them will just put up with the situation, because they are afraid to jeopardize their [immigration] eligibility, and not completing the 24 months within the three years," Palmeria explained. If the woman wishes to change her employer, she must wait four weeks to six months for a new visa before starting a new job, which can interfere with achieving her quota by the deadline.
Each day, an estimated 2 500 to 3 000 Philippine citizens leave home to seek work abroad, swelling the ranks of the 8 million already working worldwide. At home, the unemployment rate is 10 percent, while the underemployment rate is between 22 - 25 percent, making it difficult to earn a living without leaving the country.

"We are calling for the government to scrap this program," said Palmeria. "If Canada has a need for caregivers, then let them come in as an immigrant, and work as a caregiver. Why do they have to put these women in a special category? It’s totally discriminatory, sexist and exploitative."

Shannon Devine, special collaboration

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