VANCOUVER—A cross-country coalition of migrant care workers is calling on Canada to give caregivers permanent residency status on arrival, with a new report and simultaneous campaign launched on Sunday.
The move comes while tens of thousands of racialized women who came to Canada for work are living in fear and limbo — as the federal Caregiver Program is set to expire in November 2019, according to authors.
Meanwhile, care workers frequently face forced family separations, exploitative working conditions or abuse and exorbitant legal fees because their status is precarious, the report found.
“I didn’t know my rights but to work. My salary was $300 per month,” said Winnie Waithira, a Kenyan caregiver in Ontario since 2014, as she addressed a Toronto crowd through tears. “I didn’t want much money but I wanted the minimum wage. I worked six days, sometimes seven days, 12 hours per day.”
Waithira lived in the family-room of her employer, sleeping on an air mattress with no privacy — and said she didn’t know where to go or what to do. Her employer refused to sign her papers for permanent residency and today, Waithira is still “fighting” to get her status.
But by filling gaps in Canada’s in-home care sector, the hidden costs must no longer be shouldered by racialized migrant women and their families, the authors argued.
Accompanied by a petition to the immigration ministry under #LandedStatusNow, the report was produced by a coalition of 14 organizations who held conferences in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal and Ottawa on Sunday.
It features over 150 personal caregiver stories outlining the impacts of family separation, low wages, and unfair laws and policies on racialized women.
And 95 per cent of care workers reported family separation as the most detrimental impact of the current program, according to Lorina Serafico, member of Vancouver’s Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers Rights, part of the coalition.
“A caregiver program that forces women from the global South to leave their families behind in order to show care for Canadian families, is a cruel one,” the report said.
Serafico said she’s seen generations of caregiver families separated in her nearly three decades in the field.
Other problems cited by care workers include inadequate rest periods, poor or unhealthy accommodation, a lack of food and privacy, and the inability to take sick leave or have a personal life, the report found.
“They are set up to fail in this program,” she said. “We are asking to be recognized and treated equally under the law so that we can provide quality care and be healthy ourselves.”
But to date, the ministry has not outlined plans for a replacement program, she insisted.
In 2014, the previous Conservative government overhauled the program by capping the number of caregivers who can access permanent residency at 5,500 a year and imposing new requirements for language and post-secondary education.
Under the new program, only 1,955 caregivers and their dependants were granted permanent residency in the three years following the changes. This is in contrast to an average of 10,740 people — caregivers and families — being granted permanent status annually between 2006 and 2014 under the previous live-in caregiver program.
“The Government is committed to ensuring that caregivers continue to have a pathway to permanent residence,” according to a statement on the federal government’s official website.
The new program meant that caregivers work for two years before applying for residency — although one year is the standard for other immigration programs — and staff came on employer specific work permits, without their families and with temporary resident status, the report noted.
Tied work permits create an employment relationship where caregivers’ futures are in the hand of employers. And if a client passes away, the report noted they must start the entire process again.
“I lost a job after one year of service. It’s very difficult to find a new employer, which means I will have a longer time to reunite with my family. This prospect makes me miserable,” said one interviewee, Liezel, in Canada since 2016.
Meanwhile, at least 20,000 care workers have applied for landed status and are awaiting a decision on their application, it added. Research indicated that most workers are being underpaid — or not paid for overtime — because of immigration and labour rules.
But the immediate concern is for those care workers who are already here under the current program, Serafico said.
“We are potentially depriving 12,000 Canadian households of their caregivers,” she explained. “What kind of legal documentation will we provide them? They have families back home. They need jobs, they need work, they need money.”
Serafico questioned whether these caregivers — who look after households, children and the elderly — will be forced underground or be deported.
That’s why the group is calling for open work permits in the interim.
They would also like to see the removal of educational and medical requirements, as well as, caps for permanent resident applications.
“The government’s caps on new streams makes it harder. And then we have to pass the new language and education tests … I am here since April 2015 and I am still completing my 24 months of work. I have been separated from my family for 10 years already,” said Maribeth, a report interviewee who is responsible for 14 family members in the Philippines.
In addition, the group is calling to replace the “broken program” with a Federal Workers Program that would not only provide landed status for workers and their families, but also allow them to find employment in the national job bank.
The latter change would remove the need for third-party recruitment agencies, where many caregivers face a “huge debt” paying a minimum of $5,000 just to come in, Serafico explained.
International recruitment agencies have been found to use abusive practices including charging exorbitant fees, misrepresenting the types and terms of employment, withholding passports or travel documents — and human trafficking, the report found.
“Women like us have been coming to Canada for over a century raising children, taking care of the sick and elderly, being the backbone of the economy, and yet we are treated like we are expendable,” said Kara Manso in a release, co-ordinator of the Caregivers Action Centre speaking in Toronto.
“We need security, and that means landed status on arrival, family unity, and justice for workers already here.”
With files from Nicholas Keung
Melanie Green is a Vancouver-based reporter covering food culture and policy. Follow her on Twitter: @mdgmedia