Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ruby Dhalla’s Just the Tip of the Iceberg: A Short History of the Live-In Caregiver Program in Canada, and Why it Must Change

By Philip Brown

A shorter version of this article will appear in the upcoming issue of BASICS #14, June / July 2009.

Ruby Dhalla — beautiful, charismatic, articulate, media hound, successful professional, a star candidate handpicked by former Prime Minister Paul Martin — seemed destined for the Liberal Party political stratosphere when suddenly she found her political career at risk because of the allegations by Filipino women, Magdalene Gordo, 31, and Richelyn Tongson, 37, that they had been abused while working as live-in caregivers for Dhalla and her family. At once the Liberals’ critic for Youth and Multiculturalism found herself in an odd position. Absent the rallying Liberal Party troops, Dhalla was left to fend for herself.

For most of its history, Canada has had a fairly restrictive immigration system. From the beginning unwanted regions or races, then unwanted “low skilled,” were excluded entry from the country. At the same time, Canada has also had a long history of using and abusing migrant workers from said unwanted categories. Special exceptions were regularly made to such restrictions to allow special sectors of workers into Canada to perform work that while necessary for the economy was unattractive to local labourers – building the railway, picking fruits and vegetables, and, of course, live-in caregivers.

The import of domestic workers was essentially first a system that recruited European women, first Western then Eastern, as maids and future wives. But with postwar reconstruction in the West and the rise of socialism in the East drying up traditional sources of caregivers and other new workers, the expanding Canadian economy turned to the colonial and neo-colonial world for sustenance and opened its borders to these unwanted races. From 1955 to the next decade, the Caribbean Domestic Scheme brought in thousands of black Caribbean women to take care of Canadian children. These women were allowed to come in as landed immigrants as long as they worked first as domestic workers. By the 1970s, increasingly the women being allowed into the country to perform caregiving entered as temporary workers. By 1980 almost all workers coming in as caregivers were temporary workers. In 1981, the Foreign Domestic Program (FDM) was established. The FDM brought caregivers in as temporary workers with the chance of receiving landed status after two years. Increasing numbers of women entered Canada through the FDM and increasing numbers of these were from the Philippines as that country spun downward into a severe chronic economic crisis. By 1990, two-thirds of those entering through the FDM were from the Philippines. In 1991, Employment and Immigration Canada (EIC) dropped the FDM and replaced it with the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). The LCP had stricter conditions for entry behind which was an EIC worry at the large number of Filipinas entering Canada.

Those currently entering Canada through the LCP must meet the following onerous conditions:

First, the caregiver must work for 24 months out of a 36-month period. This time frame is inflexible. If the caregiver gets sick or injured and thereby looses her job, she is out of luck. That time is not counted. If her employer takes her out of the country to work elsewhere, that too is not counted. The caregiver is just out of luck. If she fails to meet this condition, the caregiver can then leave Canada, be deported and banned from further entry, or reapply for the program and if accepted start all over again. Particularly galling is the method of counting workdays. Unlike other jobs, the caregiver’s job is counted by the day not by the actual number of hours expended.

Second, those in the LCP have employer-specific visas. That means, they can only work for the employer listed in the visa and only for the purposes of caregiving. If they decide to quit this employer because, for example, this employer is mistreating them, not only do they have to expend the time required to find a new employer, a new visa must be issued by Immigration Canada. All in all up to six months can be wasted in this process. As the 36-month limit, therefore, approaches, the caregiver will be forced to bear with an employer no matter how bad they may be.

How bad situations can get is driven home by the third onerous condition: the LCP’s mandatory live-in requirement. This condition exposes the caregiver to greater dangers of sexual or physical abuse. They also increase potential for excessively long work hours and the lowering of real wages, violations of privacy, and the arbitrary addition of non-caregiving work or multiple caregiving jobs. Caregivers are often made to clean house and business, do minor repairs, or take care of the pets and relatives not only of their employer but of their employer’s friends and neighbors. So bearing with a bad employer at crunch time is not just a Monday to Friday, nine to five matter, it can often be a six to seven day a week matter 24 hours a day!

Of course, when the caregiver does choose to quit their employer, all means of support disappears. Even though caregivers pay into all of Canada’s social programs, programs we all take for granted, like EI or welfare, are practically inaccessible to caregivers without affecting future immigration status. Immigration Canada looks poorly upon any evidence you might not be completely self-supporting.

Once, you have completed these conditions, one more hurdle is placed before you: the second medical requirement! All temporary workers, in fact all migrants, have to pass a medical test before they can come to Canada. Those going through the LCP have to pass a second test, after they have worked years in Canada. It is the only temporary worker program that makes this requirement. Caregivers, therefore, if they become ill while working in Canada, face the prospects of being denied status.

These are not all the conditions that have to be fulfilled. We won’t cover them in this article. Suffice it to say that the LCP as it has been constructed places thousands of women in conditions of at least three to five years of lonely family separation, under the continuous gaze of their employer, at the promise of an often-elusive status.

Nevertheless, 85 percent of Filipinos in Canada think that a special work program allowing caregivers to come into Canada and gain status should exist despite the calls by some fringe Filipino organizations calling for the scrap of the LCP. What Filipinos in Canada overwhelmingly wish for is that changes be made to the LCP to remove such oppressive and exploitative conditions as the employer specific visa, the delays in receiving landed status, the mandatory live-in requirement, etc.

Migrante Ontario has been exposing problems with the LCP and has campaigned for these changes. Support for Migrante’s calls has increased not only within the wider Filipino community, among migrant and other workers, but also among Filipino middle forces. More and more Filipino organizations have come to support the campaign for changes in the LCP. Support has also increased among Canadian advocacy groups, unions, churches, and sections of the mass media.

The problems of the LCP first reached mass public attention in October 2007 with the murder of live-in caregiver Jocelyn Dulnuan in her employer’s house. It was repeated at a higher level with the case of Juana Tejada who despite fulfilling her work requirements was first denied landed status due to having become ill with cancer while working in Canada. Migrante Ontario, with Juana Tejada in the forefront, and the help of the Steelworkers union, spearheaded a campaign for Tejada’s status. Tejada was victorious for her status but sadly Juana Tejada succumbed to cancer before seeing the full goal of the campaign realized: A Juana Tejada law removing the second medical requirement for those in the LCP. This law is now being recommended by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.

The issue of live-in caregivers finally reached critical mass in Canadian consciousness starting with series of articles in the Toronto Star in March of this year exposing the role of unscrupulous recruiters in exploiting caregivers. Liberal MPP Mike Colle stepped in with a bill calling for the provincial regulation of caregiver recruitment agencies. By April, due to mounting pressure from the Filipino community and the broader Canadian public, the previously ambivalent Ontario Labour Minister, Peter Fonseca, promised to deliver to provincial parliament a bill regulating caregiver recruitment agencies.

At a public meeting on April 25, Minister Fonseca and Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne egged on caregivers present to talk about their problems with the promise they would do something about them. There, Magdalene Gordo and Richelyn Tongson came out with their accusations. Two weeks later, an article in the Star appeared covering the case of Gordo and Tongson. So started Dhalla’s problems.

Not long before, Ignatieff had just been crowned leader by the Liberals. Harper’s Conservatives are hell bent on tainting Ignatieff’s leadership like they had done successfully with Dion. Dhalla was, therefore, left on her own. She quickly resigned from her job as Youth and Multiculturalism critic ostensibly to defend herself, an exercise she has performed rather poorly with initial claims they were all one big happy family, followed up by attempts to malign the caregivers and paranoid accusations of a political conspiracy behind the accusation.

This much is true, there has been a political conspiracy and it is by the Tories to unseat Dhalla from her closely won riding. The allegations and their exposure to the public however predate this conspiracy. The Tories just opportunistically jumped on the bandwagon to further their own sectarian interests and to divert the issue from real changes to the LCP.

The crux of the matter is that the allegations against Dhalla involve two levels of government and three types of statute. It is true that they involve violations of the provincial employment Standards Act and Fonseca has also been put on the defensive for apparently having done little since having heard the case. They also involve violations of tax law, and more significantly of immigration law, of which Kenny is the Federal Minister responsible. What fewer people know is that Kenny had also known of the allegations almost as early as Fonseca and he too has given little evidence of doing anything other than trying to focus all the media attention on Fonseca and Dhalla.

The campaign to make changes to the LCP continues. It is larger than any Tory instigated “Dump Dhalla Movement.” As it stands, here is where we now are: On June 10, a Commons committee that heard from Dhalla and the former caregivers involved released a report “… recommend[ing] that the authorized bodies in the provincial and federal governments investigate the allegations of the former live-in caregivers in the Dhalla residence and take measures as appropriate.” The very same day, a Commons committee tabled a report recommending that caregivers be granted permanent resident status upon their arrival in Canada but subject to conditions that would be lifted after completing 24 months of work within a 36-month period, the immigration committee. At the same time, caregivers would also be entitled to interim health benefits and would be allowed to go to school. As the report says, “Having permanent resident status upon arrival in Canada would enable caregivers the same rights as other permanent residents: mobility, the right to live where they wish, to bring their family members or to change employers. Further it would be easier than under the present system for caregivers to escape abusive situations.”