Commentary | Protecting our most vulnerable workers

The New York state Senate is currently trying to pass a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Though parties within the legislature have stalled it from becoming law, the bill points to problems that are relevant to Canada, and sets a progressive example that Quebec should learn from. The proposed bill dictates that workers no longer be an exception to minimum wage and overtime laws, that they receive health and disability insurance from their employers, and that they receive at least one day of rest per week. Such provisions, if properly enforced, could improve working conditions in a field peopled disproportionately by immigrants, many of them skilled workers who are kept from finding employment in their line of work by systemic barriers.

Domestic workers – cooks, nannies, housecleaners, and persons occupying similar positions in private residences – in New York, Quebec, and around the world, face working situations where labour rights are difficult to enforce. Often they are the only person in the workplace, making them the only witness to abuses and leaving them with no one with whom to lodge complaints; as they work in isolation in private homes, it’s difficult to organize into unions; and being considered like a member of the family, they’re often asked to do more than their share without adequate compensation. They are, in the language of the bill, “isolated, exploited and psychologically abused by their employers, thus resulting in the belief they will suffer serious harm if they leave their jobs.”

In Canada as in the U.S., male and female skilled immigrants often have to take jobs as factory workers, cab drivers, or janitors when their degrees are not recognized by potential employers. After some years working in positions unrelated to their professional training, these workers’ skills become obsolete as they fall behind the latest developments in their field, making it even more difficult to find work in their domain again later. Often they populate professions with poor working conditions that leave them vulnerable to abuse, domestic work being a prime example.

A lack of “Canadian experience” is also a barrier to finding employment – although the precise definition of “Canadian experience” seems arbitrary. “Often it is used as a filter to exclude immigrants,” Université de Montréal professor Marie-Thérèse Chicha recently told The Hour. “We call this a modern racism. The real reason behind this ‘Canadian or Québécois experience’ is actually prejudice, and the fact that employers find it’s risky to hire people they don’t know, that may have different diplomas. Employers don’t make the necessary effort to know how it corresponds.”

But more than this, the Canadian government actively funnels skilled immigrants into professions where they become de-skilled. These jobs put the workers into situations where no mechanisms exist to enforce the most basic labour rights, through government initiatives like the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). The LCP brings people to work as caregivers, primarily for the elderly and for children, with the promise that after 24 months of work they can apply for permanent residence. Meantime, caregivers live in a precarious situation. Because their visa usually ties them to a particular employer with whom they live, they are subjected to their employer’s whims – they often must work around the clock without due compensation, and if they’re fired, they could be expelled from the country.

But the effects of the LCP last longer than the program itself. By the time caregivers can sponsor their families, 10 or 15 years might have passed – making a family reunion a meeting of strangers. This kind of dramatic upheaval in the lives of youth, combined with the socio-economic marginalization that their families are forced into and the dead-end jobs open to people whose only work experience in the country is caregiving, contributes to the development of gangs, and to high drop-out rates, especially among young men.

In addition to its basic injustice, this system is hurting Canada in the long run – with its greying population, the country needs young immigrant workers to settle here and contribute tax money to the social system. The future of Canada is immigrants.

The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, the first piece of legislation of its kind in the U.S., only got this far in the New York Senate after years of lobbying and exerting pressure on the government by community organizations like Long Island Jobs with Justice. We should push for legislation in Quebec that protects domestic workers and guarantees their basic rights.

And as students in or residents of Quebec, we need to oppose programs that institutionalize the de-skilling, mistreatment, and suppression of foreign-trained workers, and support advocacy groups like the Philippine Women’s Centre, Kabataang Montreal, or SIKLAB, a migrant workers’ union, that seek to abolish them.


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