Caregivers urge 'wage theft' victims to go public

Two Ontario caregivers seeking $350,000 they allege they're owed for lost wages and compensation are urging other workers to come forward to help push for changes in the employment standards law.
Child-care workers Lilliane Namukasa, left, and Vivian de Jesus are suing their former employers for unpaid wages and wrongful dismissal. (Adrien Veczan/Toronto Star)

Two Ontario caregivers seeking more than $350,000 they allege they're owed for lost wages and wrongful dismissals are urging other workers to come forward to help push for changes in the province's employment standards law.

Lilliane Namukasa, a former Brampton live-in nanny of two small children whose claim filed in Ontario Superior Court came to light  on the weekend, was joined by Vivian de Jesus at a news conference at Queen's Park on Monday.

"Please, for any caregiver in Canada, if you have a problem, don't be scared," Namukasa, who left Uganda to work in Canada, said about her alleged firing about a year ago for no cause.

Now 24, she is seeking $162,000 for breach of contract and unpaid wages, and holiday pay and vacation pay, as well as $33,000 in wrongful dismissal compensation. She is now working as a live-in nanny for three children, and says she is being treated well.

However, Warren Lyon, a lawyer for Namukasa's employer, Beatrice Ssekabira, said via email to various media, including, that Namukasa "was not a candid and forthright, diligent immigrant who made an honest effort to stay in Canada."

Lyon, who is with Angel Ronan S.L.R.P., added: "Be assured that my client is a victim of a very hurtful intention that rested in the heart of her employee."

De Jesus says she cared for an elderly woman and her two adult children with developmental disabilities for 10 years. In the last four years working for them, she alleges, she was living with them and putting in 132 hours a week — almost three times the statutory 48-hour work week — with no overtime pay.

She is now seeking $55,000 in lost wages and $104,000 in other compensation.

"They gave me 20 minutes to pack my bags and get out. If they [other employers] mistreated you, caregivers like us, please come forward and stand up for your own rights," she said.

None of the allegations has been proved in court, and no statements of defence have been filed.

The name of the other employer in question was not immediately available.

Centre pushes for better laws

Namukasa and de Jesus, who are getting pro bono legal representation, were joined at the news conference by Deena Ladd, co-ordinator of the Toronto-based Workers' Action Centre, an advocacy group that aims to improve working conditions for people in low-paying jobs.

Ladd said a survey by the centre released two weeks ago suggests violations of basic labour rights "are the norm" for many immigrant workers in "precarious jobs."

"Workers should have the confidence that when they go to work, they will get paid ... that they will be protected and receive overtime, and vacation pay and statutory benefits. We believe when this does not happen, it is wage theft.

"The province is not doing the job of enforcing employment standards … most [caregivers and other such workers] are fearful of their employers' reprisals, and losing their jobs and the chances of getting permanent residency," she added.

The non-profit centre says the two women's cases are but a fraction of those involving Ontario's most vulnerable workers.

It wants the province to take steps to improve workers' plight that include:

  • Raising the cap on money that can be recovered under the Employment Standards Act to $25,000 from $10,000.
  • Increasing the six-month limit on monetary complaints to 3.5 years for live-in caregivers, because they must accumulate the equivalent of two years of full-time employment hours before they can apply for permanent residency.
  • Put programs in place that educate caregivers and other "vulnerable" workers so they know their workplace rights.