News  Situation continues to worsen for migrant workers

Panel discusses experiences of domestic workers in Canada

Four panelists, two of whom were migrant workers, spoke about the obstacles migrant workers face in Canada at a panel held at Concordia last Wednesday. The panel focussed particularly on the experiences of domestic workers.

Delia De Veyra, who was a migrant live-in caregiver from 2004 to 2009, shared her experience with the audience. De Veyra found her sponsor absent when she arrived in Canada. The recruitment agency looked for another employer, but she had to wait six months for her next job. De Veyra said that her next employer deliberately neglected the contract, and did not pay her overtime wage.

“I was like a commodity to them,” De Veyra said. “I would go there […] take care of the kids, cleaning, cooking, and so on and so forth – ten hours, twelve hours a day, no overtime pay.”

De Veyra quit, but was also subject to abuse upon arrival at her following job, this time experiencing psychological harassment. Her employer’s wife would constantly shout and swear at her, De Veyra explained. With the help of PINAY, a Filipino women’s organization in Quebec, De Veyra filed a complaint, but did not receive indemnity. Instead, the employer demanded an apology for the complaint she filed.

Soon thereafter, De Veyra attempted to become a permanent resident as provided for by Canada’s Live-in Caregiver Program, but was rejected. She was advised to apply to become a permanent resident based on humanitarian grounds instead, and from 2006 to 2009 she worked on the application. This year, she finally received Canadian citizenship.

“Migrant domestic workers are placed in a very precarious situation, as their workplace is in a private household, behind closed doors, out of the public eye, which renders them invisible,” said panelist François Crépeau, a law professor at McGill and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.

In the presentation, Crépeau noted that domestic workers, who are largely migrant workers, work in the private sphere, and are thus often overlooked as part of the labour market. “They’re physically […] isolated, which makes it difficult for them to take collective action or even get information, contact, or support,” said Crépeau.

Crépeau emphasized that migrant domestic workers must be ensured access to education, vocational training, health services, food, and shelter; they should also be made aware of resources available to them in the country of destination, and possess a written contract in a language they understand, he said.

“We must empower domestic workers to fight for their own rights by ensuring that they have access to the information and protection mechanisms they need,” said Crépeau. “Nothing has ever worked better than empowering people to fight for their own rights. Only by empowering migrants to speak for themselves can we hope to have their voices heard and their rights respected.”

Enrique Llanez, a Spanish anthropologist and an advocate of immigrant rights in Canada, also shared his experience as a migrant worker, this time with Canada’s ‘work-holiday’ program known as International Experience Canada. According to Llanez, this program results in Spanish engineers, lawyers, and mathematicians emigrating to Canada, and leads to underemployment in Spain. Consequently, Canada has ready access to skill and cheap labour, as immigrant workers are often paid less than their peers.

The number of temporary migrant workers in Canada has grown by 70 per cent in the last five years, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees. “These people are being abused from the moment they set their feet in the country, and forced to sign papers not even written in their native languages,” said Llanez.

Llanez was not very optimistic about the situation as it presently stands. “What’s being enforced is keeping temporary foreign workers’ heads down […] an agency hasn’t been built to check that the conditions that these people live in are being respected.” He said that the situation for workers is becoming increasingly difficult, despite increased public awareness of the issues migrant workers face.

Audience members participated actively in the question-and-answer session that followed.

Maria Margarita Caicedo, a Concordia student involved with Journalists for Human Rights, found the panel illuminating.

“I thought it was really interesting from a human rights perspective […] it’s a human right, as opposed to citizenship,” said Caicedo. “I really didn’t know anything about the migrants issue in Quebec […] it’s shocking.”