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Caregiver advocates are drawing attention to continued rights abuses under the Caregiver program through initiatives such as "Project Guardian" launched in January 2014 and is responsible for raids on caregivers workplaces, in British Columbia and the Yukon and the Canadian government's proposals to reform the caregiver program by having 'regulated companies' employ caregivers directly.
What is "Project Guardian"?
According to the West Coast Domestic Workers Association's (WCDWA) Natalie Drolet, the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) used "Project Guardian" to investigate cases of caregivers who were working without papers. Because of "Project Guardian," raids on caregivers' places of employment became widespread. As a result, many caregivers were detained and deported.
The CBSA told rabble that it investigates "cases of alleged contravention of the Immigration Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), including illegal employment." And that the CBSA Pacific Region has initiated more than 40 investigations "based on tips and referrals," which resulted in 13 deportations.
Currently, no one is being "detained for IRPA contraventions related to the Live-in Caregiver Program in British Columbia and the Yukon," said the CBSA.
While "Project Guardian" theoretically ensures that those violating immigration policies are apprehended, Drolet argues that in practice, it punishes migrants in dire situations.
In fact, many caregivers suspected that it was their former employers who called CBSA in order to punish them for leaving abusive workplace conditions.
Drolet argues that "in all of the cases [the WCDWA has seen], the caregivers had left their previous employers because of abusive conditions. They were working long hours without being paid. They were subjected to verbal abuse. They were not given privacy in the home. Employers controlled when they were allowed to leave the home during their days off. They were all experiencing violations under the employments standards act. So some of them suspected that their employers reported them because their employers weren't happy with them leaving."
NDP Immigration critic Jenny Kwan criticizes "Project Guardian" for assuming automatically that caregivers are at fault. Although reforms to the Caregiver program, such as the elimination of the live-in requirement, was supposed to protect caregivers from employer abuse, Kwan believes that caregivers are still vulnerable because initiatives like "Project Guardian" portray them as the ones "abusing" the Caregiver program rather than unscrupulous employers and employment agents.
Drolet affirms Kwan's arguments that the Canadian government is scapegoating caregivers. She criticizes CBSA and Citizenship and Immigration Canada's (CIC) inflexibility.
In ignoring "the conditions for why the caregivers have left their employers" and the reality that the Caregiver program is "meant to facilitate permanent residence for caregivers," caregivers' rights are compromised.
This, according to Drolet, violates legal precedent: "case law from the federal courts says that immigration officers should have a flexible and constructive approach when working with caregivers… These raids by CBSA fly in the face of all of that."
Employment agencies and the Caregiver program
Caregiver advocates see the Canadian government's proposal to have "regulated companies" (employment agencies) hire caregivers directly rather than families as another cause for concern.
When asked for the rationale behind this proposal, CIC spokesperson Nancy Caron quotes Immigration Minister John McCallum by stating that, "this type of reform would benefit both sides. It benefits families because that's where the bureaucracy is and it helps caregivers because in the case of a bad fit or abuse, the employer will find them another family."
Caregiver advocates argue that this model assumes that employment agents themselves are not abusive. Gabriela-Ontario's Petronila Cleto cites the case of Platinum Care, which was charged in 2014 of giving caregivers false employment offers, to show that caregivers are also victimized by employment agencies.
Pinay's Evelyn Calugay notes further that this model which has been implemented in other industries facing downsizing, has led "agency workers" to be placed in an unequal power relationship with their agents. Calugay observes that the only way McCallum's proposal would work is if agencies in Canada find agencies in sending countries to recruit potential caregivers. She believes that these partnerships are problematic; although the Canadian government can oversee the activities of agencies in Canada, it cannot regulate the activities of agencies abroad.
This means that activities that are illegal in Canada, such as the charging of recruitment fees, can still be practiced by agencies abroad. McCallum's proposal does not prevent occurrences of debt bondage.
As Kwan notes, many caregivers pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity to work in Canada. If, as Drolet states, "there is currently very little to no enforcement of laws regulating recruiters," the onus is placed on the Canadian government to provide a specific process to systematically regulate agencies.
Necessary reforms needed now
Caregiver advocates believe that the Caregiver program needs to be significantly reformed to ensure that caregivers' rights are protected.
Kwan criticizes the long processing times for caregivers' permanent residency applications, which she states makes them more vulnerable and prolongs their separation from their families: "Under what situation is it okay for families to continue being separated? Breaking up families is never a good thing."
Kwan suggests that giving caregivers' spouses and adult children work permits so they can accompany caregivers to Canada is one way to ensure that migrant families are kept intact.
Drolet suggests that rather than giving caregivers work permits tying them to their employers, caregivers should either be given a "sector-specific work permit" or an "open work permit."
Many caregiver advocates believe that the long-term solution to curb caregiver abuse lies in giving caregivers and all temporary foreign workers landed status upon arrival.
As Drolet argues, "we need to move away from this model of having a guest worker program in Canada and move towards having permanent residency upon arrival for all workers. This will entail a reimagining of our immigration system to be able to include individuals who are highly motivated, who are hardworking but who happen to fall into semi-skilled occupations. But until that time when we can transition to a different system, we need to provide pathways to permanent residency for the workers who are already here."
Editor's note: This piece was updated on March 30, 2016 to include response from the CBSA.
Requests for comment from Conservative Party Immigration Critic Michelle Rempel and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May were not returned before publication time.
Ethel Tungohan is a community activist and an incoming Assistant Professor in Political and Social Science at York University.