Eleven o’clock Tuesday morning at the Workers’ Action Centre. Media and supporters are jam-packed into a room to listen to representatives of the newly formed Caregivers Action Centre, comprised of former and current caregivers working for change in Temporary Foreign Worker programs including the Live-In Caregiver Program and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.
Several organizations are supporting this press conference: Adhika-Philippine Development Concerns, Caregivers Action Centre, Caregiver Resource Centre, Filipino Centre-Toronto, Gateway Centre for New Canadians, Good Jobs for All Coalition, Independent Workers Association, Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario, Justicia for Migrant Workers, Migrante-Ontario, No One is Illegal, Parkdale Community Legal Services, Silayan Community Centre, United Food and Commercial Workers-Canada, United Steelworkers and the Workers’ Action Centre.
Behind me, two women are holding a banner demanding the resignation of Ruby Dhalla, the Liberal MP accused by two Filipino nannies last month of abuse and mistreatment, alleging that they were underpaid, overworked and made to do non-nanny jobs such as washing cars and cleaning shoes.
A Commons committee report leaked before its presentation next week, recommends that “the provincial and federal governments investigate allegations of the former live-in caregivers in the Dhalla residence and take measures as appropriate.”
But the issue is bigger than Dhalla. Much bigger.
Pura Velasco is a former caregiver and one of the organizers of the Caregivers Action Centre (CAC), composed of former and current caregivers who came to Canada under the federal government’s Live-In Caregiver program (LCP). The CAC assists and supports caregivers often abused and exploited by their employers and employment agencies, and encountering difficulties navigating LCPs regulations and requirements. The CAC is also advocating for vigorous protection and fundamental changes to the LCP.
“The Dhalla case is just one of the many that need to be investigated,” says Velasco. “So many employers violate the rights of their live-in caregivers. So we need to investigate all employers who exploit their caregivers.”
Velasco wants a federal inquiry to look at the core problem of the LCP: the temporary work permit system and the requirement for caregivers to live with their bosses for 24 months within 36 months of arriving in Canada. She accused past and present federal governments of abdicating their responsibility to protect caregivers from abuse and exploitation.
“The Liberals and the Conservatives have trivialized and ignored fragrant violations of foreign workers, labour and human rights. Both parties try to soften the rough edges of the LCP as a delusion by continuing to enshrine the interests of the Canadian government and employers with their failure to create a universal child care, elderly and disabled care system. No amount of work and workers’ rights education can eliminate the systemic violations inherent in the LCP.”
Fearful of employers’ reprisals, Velasco says caregivers cannot fight for their rights inside the home where they work and live. Their precarious immigration status coupled with the mandatory requirement to live with their bosses gives employers the upper hand. Without landed status, improved employment standards won’t boost the confidence of caregivers to stand up for their rights.
Caregiver and president of the CAC, Menchie Cuaresma says caregivers are forced to keep quiet and endure abusive treatment by employers for fear of being deported. In December 2004, Cuaresma was placed with an employer who released her within three months. “My employer and my agent divided the $3,400 placement fee that I paid. This practice is rampant where the agent and the employer collude to collect placement fees from caregivers who are then left on their own to find other employment in order to complete the requirements of the LCP. Sadly, my experience is the norm – not the exception.”
Filipina women routinely endure this abuse in order to feed their families they’ve left behind in the Philippines. Many caregivers suffer silently in the houses of abusive employers: long hours, no overtime, and on-call 24/7.
After working for several employers, Cuaresma found someone who encouraged and supported her to advocate for changes to Canadian laws and policies pertaining to TFWs: Immediate status upon arrival in Canada, optional live-in requirement, stop the deportations of workers who become sick or injured and establish an appeals process, update the Employment Standards Act to provide real protection for foreign workers, and equal access to health care, EI, OAS, CPP and Workers’ Compensation.
While much of the attention in the mainstream media recently has been on the plight of live-in caregivers, many grass roots activists, unionists and community agency workers have known for a long time that the LCP is only one component of the ever expanding TFWs programs in Canada. In 2008, over 250,000 TFWs came to work in this country without the hope of ever achieving permanent residency and equal protection under the law.
The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program matches workers from Mexico and the Caribbean countries with Canadian farmers who need temporary support during planting and harvesting seasons, when qualified Canadians or permanent residents are not available.
Two years ago, Flor left behind her family in Mexico and came to Canada on an 8-month contract as a farm worker in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program for a company in the Leamington Chatham area. After 2 months, when she hadn’t even made enough money to pay for her share of the flight to and from Canada, Flor was fired.
“We work different schedules, sometimes into the night, and we don’t get paid overtime,” says Flor, who spoke through an interpreter and wouldn’t provide her first and last name. “Sometimes the employer doesn’t even give us the appropriate clothing.” A domestic violence survivor and single mother, Flor thought things would be different in Canada.
So do a lot of other temporary foreign workers, who come to this country only to find themselves in “difficult”, often hazardous, working conditions, employed in low paying jobs most Canadians won’t accept. “To remain competitive globally, it seems that the strategy right now is to import a number of these temporary foreign workers,” says Julius Tiangson, a community advocate and executive director of Gateway Centre for New Canadians.
Dr Randy Persaud, an Associate Professor of International Relations and Director of Comparative and Regional Studies in the School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C., says “the new world economy has created a hyper-flexible workforce and diminution of the rights of workers and a concomitant splitting of the labour market with an upper rung of knowledge based workers and a lower rung of unskilled, contingent workers.”
Simply put, the new labour market demands highly specialized workers at the top and low-end service workers at the bottom.
“There was a fantastic rise of a new class of well compensated knowledge and financial sector workers, who demanded personal service – daycare, lawn attendance, personal security for gated communities etc…,” says Persaud in a commentary published Monday in the Caribbean Net News. “While there was a wild scramble for the knowledge workers at the top, there was great permissiveness for foreign workers at the bottom.”
Persaud continued, “While the most important qualification of the upper rung workers is their technical qualification, the qualification for the lower end workers is actually their vulnerability.”
Even though most migrant workers in Canada contribute to EI and CPP, they receive no benefits. “Part of the $57B EI surplus is on the backs of migrant workers,” said Winnie Ng, Co-chair of the Good Jobs for All Coalition. “And to me that’s immoral. We squeeze and abuse them. And at the end of the day we take advantage of them.”
Ng accused Citizenship and Immigration of acting as recruiters for the large corporations. “We use them and when we don’t need them they are being deported,” she said.
“And that’s a fast and easy way of getting rid of workers.”
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