Toronto

Live-in caregivers subject to abuse: critics

Some advocates within Canada's Filipino communities are hoping that expected changes to the federal government's live-in caregiver program will make it better and safer for foreign workers in the country.

Some advocates within Canada's Filipino communities are hoping that expected changes to the federal government's live-in caregiver program will make it better and safer for foreign workers in the country.

Problems faced by some live-in caregivers were highlighted earlier this year when three women levelled charges against Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla and her family.

They said they were forced to work long hours and do extra work in the home. Dhalla has denied the charges.

But the allegations have sparked a debate — largely in the Filipino communities, on which the program draws heavily — about the Citizenship and Immigration Department scheme and whether it can be saved.

"Admittedly a lot of Filipinas, especially, have benefited from this program, because otherwise they would never have qualified [to immigrate] under the skilled-worker categories," lawyer Deanna Santos said. "But still, clearly, it is being used as a way to exploit."

Part of Santos's practice is helping to advise newly arrived live-in caregivers about their rights under Canadian employment and immigration law. Under the program, a worker has to spend two out of their first three years in Canada as a live-in caregiver before they can apply for permanent residency. They can't switch employers without getting a new work permit.  

Santos said some women in the program leave themselves open to abuse and are afraid to make waves.

"The tendency of the live-in caregiver is to stick with their employer so they can finish their permanent residency and get out of there and get their work permit," she said.

Since the 1980s, more than a 100,000 caregivers, who normally would not have qualified for entry into Canada as skilled workers, are now in the country because of the live-in caregiver system. 

Cecilia Diocson, CEO of the National Alliance of Philippine Women in Canada, said one way to prevent abuse is to grant foreign live-in caregivers residency status immediately. That would remove the potential for abuse, she said.

But Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said that would mean the caregivers could simply leave their sponsoring employer.

"I am really concerned the [live-in caregiver] program would shut down," Kenney said. "As a consequence, we would lose out on the opportunity for tens of thousands of people to meet these growing care needs."

Reforms to the program will be coming this fall, based on consultations with  caregivers and recommendations by a parliamentary committee, Kenney said.

But Diocson said there is still no excuse for the many cases of "exploitive conditions" that women have faced.

"The live-in caregiver program is a form of human trafficking," Diocson said.  "It's very clear: All over the country [there are] many cases of domestic workers being abused every day."

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