Nanny sues boss for $195K over 'wage theft'

A Ugandan nanny who says she was paid a mere $100 a month over two years is suing her former employer for $195,000, in a case her supporters say highlights mistreatment of low-income and migrant workers in Ontario.

Ugandan immigrant was paid $100 a month for 16-hour days, lawsuit says

A Ugandan nanny who says she was paid a mere $100 a month over two years is suing her former employer for $195,000, in a case her supporters say highlights rampant mistreatment of low-income and migrant workers.

Lilliane Namukasa says she came to Canada in March 2008 to work as a live-in caregiver for a family in Brampton, Ont. Her employment contract called for her to be paid $427.50 a week in regular pay, minus $55 weekly to cover her room and board, plus $17 an hour for any overtime, according to her statement of claim.

Lilliane Namukasa says she worked 15.5-hour days, seven days a week, for far below minimum wage at a home on this block in Brampton, Ont. ((Google Street View))

But instead, her employer — a mother of two young boys who herself often worked overtime and on weekends and holidays — paid just $100 a month and forced her to work 15½-hour days, says the lawsuit, filed last month in Ontario Superior Court.

Namukasa, 24, says she toiled seven days a week caring for her boss's children and cleaning the family's home, and got no vacation or overtime pay.

"I never got days off," she said in an interview Sunday. At first, coming from a country where the average monthly wage is $50, she didn't realize how badly she was being mistreated by her employer, she said, even when the woman took away her passport and work permit.

"They didn't tell me anything, so when I got information about my situation here, that's when I opened my eyes, and when I tried to talk to her she was really furious at me."

Namukasa says her boss put more restrictions on her, like banning her from using the phone, and threatened to call immigration agents on her. She was finally, and suddenly, fired in March 2010.

Lived in women's shelter

Namukasa's lawsuit claims $162,250 for breach of her employment contract and unpaid wages, including overtime and statutory holiday pay, as well as $33,145 for wrongful dismissal and lack of proper notice of dismissal.

Because she lived with her employer and wasn't permitted any free time, she had no friends to turn to when she was let go and had to live in a women's shelter, the lawsuit says.

None of Namukasa's claims has been proven in court, and her employer hasn't yet filed a statement of defence.

Deena Ladd, co-ordinator at the Workers' Action Centre, a Toronto-based organization fighting to improve working conditions for people in menial jobs, said Namukasa's "wage theft" woes are typical of what many live-in caregivers and other temporary labourers face.

"It's really important for her story to come forward, to let people know what's happening to live-in caregivers, to many workers who maybe don't know what their rights are, who come from immigrant and racialized communities, who are vulnerable to wage theft, " Ladd said.

Namukasa came to Canada through the federal government's live-in caregiver program, which gives nannies from foreign countries a temporary work permit and the chance to apply to immigrate if they complete two years of employment within a three-year window. The program forces nannies to live with their employer.

A report earlier this month from the Toronto-based Workers' Action Centre found rampant instances of unpaid wages and other abuses of employees in insecure jobs.

"Not only are they tied to the employer, but they have to live in their employer's house, so it's their accommodation, it's their income, it's their ability to stay in this country. All of that is tied together," Ladd said.

"Many workers don't want to speak out, because they really need those 24 months of work. So if an employer is breaching their contract, if an employer is not paying them overtime, if an employer is not paying minimum wage … what we hear over and over again from workers is, 'I'm not going to say anything because my status, my ability to stay in Canada, is tied to my employer.'"

The Ontario government set up a hotline in 2009 for nannies who think they've been abused by an employer, but Ladd's group has called on the Labour Ministry to do more, including proactively going after employers in sectors known for infringing worker rights.

A Workers' Action Centre report published earlier this month found that nearly a quarter of people in so-called precarious jobs — temporary ones with low wages and few benefits — were paid less than minimum wage, while 39 per cent of those surveyed didn't get legally required overtime pay.

The organization will hold a news conference Monday at Queen's Park in Toronto to highlight the case of Namukasa and another live-in caregiver who, it is alleged, toiled 132 hours a week for an older woman and her two children with developmental disabilities.