News | Immigration program holds workers captive

McGill study finds immigrant domestic workers deprived of basic employment rights

A report released last week by McGill assistant professor of Social Work Jill Hanley, in association with PINAY, the Quebec Filipina Women’s Organization, denounced the federal Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) – which manages the vast majority of foreign-born domestic workers entering the country.

The study, the first of its kind ever undertaken in Canada, researched the working conditions and presented case studies from domestic workers – an overlooked demographic considered notoriously difficult to reach by the school of social work.

Hanley condemned the structure of the LCP program – which she said rendered foreign domestic workers captive in their jobs. The program stipulates a 24-month wait period during which time recently landed immigrants must remain in a government-approved employer’s home before applying for permanent Canadian residency.

The report, based on interviews and surveys of 148 domestic workers, concluded that a significant number of domestic workers in Quebec experience inadequate employment conditions, and are excluded from services other Canadian workers enjoy. Due to language and cultural barriers, many are also unaware of available services, like physicians and dentists.

“Migrants should come as permanent residents and have all the same rights as other workers. This would put pressure on the employers to offer better working conditions. If people have the option of leaving for a better job, the employer is pressured to offer good conditions,” Hanley said.

Currently, domestic workers face a three month delay before they can receive medical coverage upon entry into Canada. Caregivers are not covered by the Quebec Workplace Health and Safety Commission for workplace accident and illness.

“I saw one case where a Filipino woman found a lump in her breast; she couldn’t get it checked because she had no coverage. Some women here have gotten pregnant and they couldn’t get an appointment because they don’t have the money to pay,” PINAY president Evelyn Calugay said.

The study reported salaries at minimum wage – a standard many workers are unaware of – averaging about $250-300 per week. Forty per cent of the group reported illnesses on the job, like allergic reactions and stress, and said many will develop eczema as employers discourage wearing gloves while cleaning.

“When [caregivers] come here, they are expected to be healthy. If they get sick they have no choice but to pay for care…. Coming here they’re already in debt, they just get into debt again,” she added.

Still, LCP is attractive internationally because it allows entry into Canada for those who may not possess the resources to immigrate independently, according to the report. The study found that a majority of workers come from the Philippines, which historically showed high unemployment rates; 83.4 per cent of subjects in the study were Filipino.

“There is employment and economic instability in the Philippines. The only thing they can do is export their labour force,” said Calugay. She described female domestic workers as “commodities” traded between the Philippines to Canada.

All of the caregivers who enter Canada under the LCP program have postsecondary educations and previous experience in domestic work. The report noted that working as a caregiver can lead to diminishing capacity in professional skills previously acquired.

The study also indicated that 73 per cent of foreign domestic workers have dependent family members in their home country. When Calugay immigrated to Canada, she left her 18-month-old son behind in the Philippines. She described her reunion with him when he eventually joined her in Montreal.

“He didn’t recognize me as mom. He didn’t know me,” she said.

Hanley said she chose to conduct the study due in part to both the lack of empirical research in the area and the government’s continuing neglect of the issue.

“The government representatives seemed to doubt that there was really any problem. We wanted to document whether there really was, although we already had the anecdotal evidence.”