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Changes to Live-in Caregiver Program help no one

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Immigration Minister Chris Alexander is currently conducting a series of closed consultations to discuss possible changes to the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). Some of his proposed changes, at this time of writing, may seem to be improvements to the program, partially acceding to the caregivers' demands. Overall thought, they contradict the desire and expectation of the women workers and the families who need their service. The changes actually narrow down, and shut it for many, the path to permanent residency for the women.

Minister Alexander speaks of his aim to 'modernize' the LCP by revoking live-in caregivers' rights provided under the program to apply for permanent residency after two years of work in the LCP. In these closed door meetings, he proposes to put in place a new "recruitment model" under which live-in caregivers can apply for permanent residency: the 'Express Entry' immigration program, formally known as 'Expression of Interest' (EOI). 

This program is not as 'express' or 'modern' as it sounds. 

While 'Express Entry' claims to offer a faster, more effective path to permanent residency for live-in caregivers, in reality, this shift eliminates the live-in caregivers' hard-earned right to apply for permanent residency by vesting the power of granting citizenship in the hands of employers and the federal government. This is a massive departure from the current model, where all of those who finish the program can apply for permanent residency.

Moreover, only those candidates deemed 'most qualified' to fill Canadian labour shortages will be selected and invited by government to apply. This measure, purported to prevent backlogs, relinquishes the government of any responsibility to those not selected.

Set to launch in January 2015, this setup places caregivers in increasingly abusive situations as their place in Canada becomes even more beholden to the whims of employers who, with more tools and the impunity to wield them, can now threaten live-in caregivers with deportation. More crucially, this vastly reduces the number of live-in caregivers who can get permanent residency.

While this program initially appears like a positive policy development because applications are processed more quickly, it is actually quite problematic. This will force caregivers to endure another impenetrable layer of bureaucracy before they can even apply for permanent residency. And even if they do apply, their chances for a successful application would be a question. 

Our study, the Gabriela Transition Experiences, which surveyed 631 caregivers across Canada, shows that live-in caregivers face numerous employment vulnerabilities. These include, but are not limited to, the non-payment of wages, long working hours, unsafe working conditions and an absence of privacy. Notably, there are even cases of food insecurity, whereby live-in caregivers report not being fed adequately by their employers despite having the fees for board and lodging deducted from their salaries.

The required live-in work requirement and employer-specific work permits magnify these instances of abuse. However, respondents' desire to live and work in Canada and to be reunited with their families compels them to endure these conditions. They see themselves as Canadian immigrants and are willing to work hard in order to find better futures for their families.

That Minister Alexander is considering revoking their automatic right to permanent residency is very troubling. Such a move is unethical not only because of the contributions these caregivers have already made to Canadian society but also because he is going against decades of expressed wishes from the Canadian public.

We should not forget that Canadian families fought with live-in caregivers for the right to permanent residency in the late 1970s. Canadian families recognized that migrant domestic workers provide the care work that they sorely need. They supported the call: If migrant domestic workers are good enough to work, they are good enough to stay.

This is still true today. The absence of a national child and elderly care policy means that Canadian families have little recourse but to use the live-in caregiver program to meet their caregiving needs. The government's choice not to subsidize daycare and elderly care has, in effect, privatized care in Canada, giving profitable business to recruiters, immigration-related consultation agencies, transportation corporations and loan sharks who prey on the vulnerable.

Instead, Canadian families are forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars annually for childcare and elderly care. Middle-class families are placed in a crippling financial situation and are increasingly turning to the LCP for help.  

Indeed, our study shows that live-in caregivers continue to care for Canadians even after completing the program. Sixty-eight per cent of live-in caregivers continue to do care work three to five years after exiting the program. This figure drops to 45 per cent five to ten years after the program.

These numbers certainly show de-skilling and de-professionalization, with some of our respondents being unable to get jobs outside care work despite having education, training and work experience in other fields. These findings therefore present an opportunity for the Canadian government to think more critically about how to maximize the diverse valuable skills that live-in caregivers have.

Live-in caregivers are currently prohibited from taking educational upgrading and training courses while under the LCP. To maximize their skills and expertise, caregivers should immediately have affordable access to accredited programs such as early childhood education, personal support work and health care aide training. This way, caregivers will have improved job security and will give Canadian families access to a bigger pool of trained health care professionals.

Live-in caregivers are an important part of Canadian society. They are in fact frontline health workers who should be given recognition and support for the work that they do. Eliminating live-in caregivers' ability to apply for permanent residency is shortsighted, unjust and unfair.

It is imperative that we protect the interests of live-in caregivers and Canadian families by ensuring greater workplace protections for live-in caregivers by not tying their work permits to specific employers, by making the live-in requirement optional, by recognizing their educational and workplace experiences abroad and by recognizing their educational and workplace experiences abroad and by providing them equitable opportunities for training and education. Above all, we assure them of the integrity of the program when we give them permanent residency upon arrival, 

Ethel Tungohan, Petronila Cleto, and Conely de Leon are investigators for the Gabriela Transition Experiences Survey. 

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