Abuse and barriers increase under new caregiver program regulations

Photo: Wayne Chu

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Despite Immigration Minister Chris Alexander's promises to the Filipino and migrant communities that the November 2014 changes to the Live-in Caregiver Program provided greater protections to caregivers and quickened processing times, the opposite has occurred.

According to the Caregiver Action Centre's Karina Francisco, the new changes have made caregivers more vulnerable to employer abuse, have increased processing times, and have resulted in a 90 per cent rejection rate for new caregiver applications.

In a press conference in Toronto on August 30, 2015, Francisco eviscerated the Conservative Party for electoral pandering, denouncing Alexander and Stephen Harper for "pretending to be the friends of immigrants" and for "repeatedly lying" to Filipino and immigrant voters about purported improvements to the caregiver program when the reality is that the program has worsened.

Figures taken from a Freedom of Information request show that only 10 per cent of all Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) applications for caregivers between January and March of 2015 were accepted. Exactly why so many applications were being rejected was unknown, which for Francisco shows that the caregiver program is "secretly" being shut down.

Higher LMIA rejection rates mean that employers' power is heightened over current caregivers. Because caregivers could only apply for Canadian permanent residency after completing 3,900 hours of work, they become reluctant to leave abusive employment situations lest doing so delay their ability to apply for permanent residency; the knowledge that most LMIA applications are getting rejected bind them even more to undesirable workplaces because they would need a positive LMIA before transferring employers.

Caregiver program changes have had a negative impact on Kristina Torres and Teta Bayan. Torres and Bayan came to Canada as caregivers in 2012 but needed to find new employment soon after arrival.

Torres was abused by her employer, who terminated her without just cause, whereas Bayan, who paid a total of $3,500 in recruitment and traveling fees to get a job in Canada, was hired then fired by three consecutive employers for complaining about working during the holidays without holiday pay and for refusing to pay the wages of her replacement when she needed to take sick leave.

Torres and Bayan were subsequently able to find new employment but found their LMIA applications rejected. Although their new employers were eager to employ them, having their applications denied means that they cannot start working. "Honestly, I am exhausted. I have been able to find employers in Canada but the government is preventing me from working," said Bayan.

Other changes that the Conservative Party claimed would improve the situations of caregivers have also had the opposite effect. For Torres, the elimination of the live-in requirement was good in theory but was difficult in practice because "a lot of caregivers can't support themselves if they live out. Our low wages cannot support us living out."

Attempts to streamline the program by having prospective caregivers apply through either the child-care stream or the high medical needs stream have also failed. The latter technically allows qualified professionals, such as Registered Nurses (RN) and Registered Practical Nurse (RPN), to work in Canada but have been difficult for caregivers because of accreditation and professional bodies' reluctance to give them the necessary licenses.

This was the case for Bayan, who completed all the requirements to work as an RPN in Canada, including writing the Canadian Practical Nursing Licensing Exam. Because she did not have a work permit or permanent residency papers, she claimed that licensing body refused to give her a license: "I can't get my RPN license unless I have my landed papers or work permit but I can't get these until I have a successful LMIA application. It is a situation of which comes first  - the chicken or the egg."

In addition, Bayan observed that most medical establishments were reluctant to sponsor caregivers because they did not want to pay the $1,000 LMIA application processing fee, making the high medical needs stream difficult for caregivers to access.

Francisco, Torres, and Bayan argued that it is important to give permanent residency upon arrival to all caregivers and migrant workers because of the important work they do.

Bayan stated that Canadians would benefit if all caregivers were given permanent residency: "Canada has a great need for caregivers for the elderly, for children, for people with disabilities and with high medical needs. It is through this program that Canadians can [meet] their caregiving needs. Therefore, caregivers should be given security of status."

With the federal election looming, they asked "all political parties to take a stance against the oppression of all caregivers" by supporting their demand for landed status. When asked whether political parties have heeded their calls, Francisco stated that, "political parties have so far ignored the calls of caregivers and migrant workers."

The Liberal and Conservative parties did not reply to requests for an interview before press time.

Update: The NDP returned request for response on Live-In Caregivers Program

It has been a longstanding position of the NDP that caregivers should be granted permanent residency immediately upon arrival. We will also work to create pathways to citizenship for all temporary foreign workers, including eliminating the caps the Conservatives placed on the number of caregivers who can become permanent residents.

While the Caregiver Program needed reforms in order to protect caregivers from abuse, the Conservatives have completely mismanaged the reform of the program. They made unsubstantiated attacks on one particular community, instead of addressing the exploitation of caregivers by employers, and they left caregivers in a very precarious situation. We support the removal of the requirement to live in, but the Conservatives still left caregivers dependent on the goodwill of their employers by making them wait two years for permanent residence. The Conservatives also created a new educational requirement for permanent residency, but without enabling caregivers to pursue that requirement via education in Canada.

The Conservatives' ultimate goal seems to have been to eliminate the program without actually announcing it, as they have slowed application processing to a crawl, while refusing the vast majority of applications.

An NDP government will work to restore fairness in the system, so that Canadian families can find the child care or seniors care they need, and caregivers have access to safe work at fair wages.

Ethel Tungohan is a Grant Notley Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta and a community activist.

Photo: Wayne Chu

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