Many employers, agencies abuse live-in work program

Oct. 30, 2004


At its core, say proponents, Canada's Live-in Caregiver Program is a good one.


When it works, it can help families find qualified nannies and caregivers from abroad willing to live in their homes. It can also lead to women and men from lesser-developed nations earning permanent residence status in this country.


When it doesn't work, the results can be shameful.


A Star examination of the system has found widespread abuse in several areas including:


Financial exploitation, sexual harassment and even sexual assault of nannies by some employers.


Astronomical fees charged to nannies by unlicensed agencies to find them a job. Many of these jobs are outright frauds, where the agency has paid a complicit `employer' to put their name on a federal application form. They cancel the job when the nanny arrives.


Prospective nannies paying relatives or friends residing in Canada to `hire' them as a nanny or caregiver when they don't require such services. These nannies know full well there is no real job awaiting them, but will pay to get their foot in the immigration door and look for other work after arriving.


"It's a great program for both caregivers and families," says Marna Martin, president of Oakville agency, Trafalgar Personnel, and an advocate for improving industry standards. "But it's being abused tremendously at the moment."


Abused by agencies, by employers, and sometimes even by the nannies themselves.


This is not what the federal government envisioned when the current version of the program was launched in 1992. The goal was simply to fulfill a demand for qualified live-in caregivers. Ottawa has always maintained that few Canadian citizens want jobs where they must live in their employer's home.


"The program was created to respond to labour-market needs. And it is still responding to a labour-market need," says Claire Despins, of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, which administers the plan.


But the carrot for most applicants is not simply the job. The real allure is the promise that if the nanny or caregiver completes two years of full-time work within a three-year period they will be permitted to apply for permanent residency status and eventually sponsor their own families.


It's a powerful incentive. It is also, in cases where the employer is abusive, a stick. Many nannies told the Star they felt compelled to endure excessive or illegal hours (or worse) because they feared complaining might jeopardize their chances of fulfilling two years.


So why don't they just switch employers? Many do. The problem is, each switch requires a release form and a new work permit that names the new employer. It can up to take two to three months for that, meaning changing jobs twice or more can quickly erode the chances of fulfilling two years within the three-year window. As a result, many will remain, effectively trapped, in exploitive or abusive households.


`Women in the program say they feel like they're being imprisoned in the house.'


Cecilia Diocson, National Alliance of Philippine Women in Canada


"This is a bad program, a bad program," says Cecilia Diocson, of the Vancouver-based National Alliance of Philippine Women in Canada. "The mandatory live-in policy, it's like slavery. The women in the program say they feel like they're being imprisoned in the house."


Sometimes, it really can be that bad. More frequently, however, the abuse is so subtle the employer may not even realize it's occurring. It's easy to ask someone you've come to view as `part of the family' for a favour or two.


A federal pamphlet that nannies and caregivers receive outlines what constitutes abuse, encourages domestic workers to know their rights, and lists phone numbers to call for help.


Some nannies are too fearful to call, or assume that excessive hours are simply the way the program works (many employers tell them that). But some do pick up the phone.


Rolando Rico Olalia, consular officer in labour for the Philippine Consulate General in Toronto, says his office receives three calls a day from nannies. Many of the complaints, he says, involve underpayment or illegal termination.


In some cases, however, the caregivers themselves are abusing the system. Donald Mills, of Caregivers of Canada Ltd., says he has received several calls from nannies asking how much he would charge to bring their family members into the country.


"Nannies here pay big bucks to agencies, asking them to bring their family in," he says. "It's buying your way into Canada.''


But for those nannies and caregivers who have documented their hours and have a case for unpaid wages, there are options. The Employment Standards Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Labour can, after investigating, issue orders requiring the employer to pay up. One such ruling, issued Dec. 30 of last year, ordered a Mississauga woman to pay $14,809.54 in back wages to her former nanny.


But the inherent power imbalance between a nanny or caregiver and their employer, compounded by the caregiver's precarious immigration status, means many abuses go unreported. Some point the finger of blame directly at the requirement that those on the Live-in Caregiver Program must `live-in' their employer's home.


``(T)his situation can lead to abuses, such as unpaid or excessive working hours, violations of privacy, greater dependence on employers, sexual harassment and sexual assault," states a Status of Women Canada paper that critically examines both the Live-in Caregiver Program and mail-order brides.


Ottawa says it has been listening and concerns have prompted the exhaustive review of the program currently underway. It's been hearing from employers, agencies, and the nannies themselves.


Ultimately, if the program's live-in component remains, advocates fear the potential for abuse will remain. The ministry says it cannot speculate on what the final recommendations will be. But it does stress the stories of nannies and caregivers in this country, so often silenced by fear, are finally being heard.


"People are afraid, you know," says Maria Iadinardi, of Citizenship and Immigration Canada.


"And those that were strong enough (to speak out), well, we heard their voices. And that's why the review is taking place."


With files from Melissa Leong