Foreign caregivers pay a heavy price
Federal 'live-in' program exploited
Oct. 30, 2004. 01:00 AM
Every year, thousands of nannies, nearly always from the Philippines, arrive in this country with their eyes set on a distant but tantalizing goal: Canadian citizenship. They're able to come thanks to the federal Live-in Caregiver Program.
For many, it is a godsend, leading to a permanent and satisfying life in Canada.
But, as Scott Simmie and Melissa Leong report, it can also be the first step of a harrowing journey that can lead to financial, emotional, and even sexual abuse.
Anne, Wei and Lana paid dearly to come to this country.
Between them, they handed over more than $17,000 to unregulated agencies to find a Canadian employer willing to hire them as nannies. It was the start of a long odyssey that would cost them in more profound ways, too.
They left behind sons and daughters and husbands they won't see again for years. They knew they might face periods of utter isolation, that other careers and skills would be put on hold. It would be a time of sacrifice.
But they were willing to risk all of that, and more, in the hope of eventually immigrating through the federal Live-in Caregiver Program, or LCP. In 2002, 4,104 people almost all of them women from impoverished backgrounds who shared a quest for a better life arrived in Canada under the plan. Nearly half come to Ontario, with the majority of those working in the GTA.
When things go by the book, it can be a tremendous program. Responsible employers treat their employee fairly, respect their privacy, and pay their salaries in accordance with the legal guidelines. Nannies and caregivers often form strong bonds with those they care for, while saving money for the day when loved ones can join them as landed immigrants.
For the lucky nannies, that is the happy experience.
Wei, Lana and Anne, all of whom requested pseudonyms, are among the many who are not so lucky. And though their employers were largely responsible for what happened to them, critics charge the program itself currently under review in Ottawa must shoulder part of the blame.
These are their stories: What happened to three women, behind closed doors.
Anne is one of the millions who collectively form the Philippines' biggest cash export: Human labour.
Already experienced as a nanny in Hong Kong, the 39-year-old had heard the buzz about Canada's Live-in Caregiver program last year. She knew that if she could work for two full years within a three-year period, she could become a landed immigrant. For a chance at a lifetime of possibilities for herself and her family, paying a large upfront fee seemed like a bargain.
"I paid $3,000 to an agency in Canada," says Anne. But she likely could have found a job without giving a dime to that Toronto firm.
"She would have been easy to find a job for here," says Marna Martin, president of Trafalgar Personnel in Oakville, an agency that charges the employers rather than the nannies. "I'm sure the agency didn't have any trouble finding her a family."
To Anne, the deal looked good from afar. After obtaining a visa and work permit, and signing a contract with her new employer outlining her duties and hours, she boarded a jet. Anne arrived in Canada on Saturday, Jan. 31 of this year.
She started work the very next day for her new employer, who has two small children. That employer soon told her, despite what the earlier contract stated, that Anne would be required to work six days a week for a net salary of $800 per month.
She was also instructed to sleep with and keep watch over the employer's then 15-month-old son. When Anne said it would be difficult to work all day and keep an eye on a baby through the night, her employer made it clear this was now part of the job.
"She insisted ... because she has a business and she didn't want to get tired at night time."
Anne, who felt that challenging this new duty might put her job at risk, felt she had little choice but to agree.
"And so that's it," she says.
But there is much more to Anne's story. Under the Live-in Caregiver Program, nannies and caregivers `live-in' with their employers. Room and board is supposed to be deducted from the gross salary, along with taxes. The controversial program, which has not changed substantially in more than a decade (despite widespread concerns being flagged at least six years ago), exists because few Canadians want live-in jobs.
"It was created to respond to a labour-market need," explains Claire Despins, of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. "The program brings qualified caregivers to Canada ... in situations where there are no Canadians or Canadian residents willing to work as live-in caregivers."
The guidelines are supposed to ensure some privacy with a live-in arrangement. By law, the employer must provide the employee with a private room with a door that locks.
That didn't happen with Anne. Her bed was against the wall in an open-concept basement that housed the home theatre system. With the exception of the basement bathroom, she had no place to close a door and be alone.
Her only respite, after working all day, was to go downstairs briefly following supper. At 8 p.m. every evening, she'd be called to again attend to the child.
"The number of hours working with them is almost 24 hours (per day)," she says. "Because you know, sleeping with the baby, it does not sleep well at night time. And when I get up (in the morning), the baby's with me and I continue working."
On the night of April 1, while Anne's employer was on a business trip to Asia, her employer's husband apparently also did not sleep well. At around 2:30 a.m., there was a knock on the door of the baby's room where she was staying.
Anne opened it. The husband was standing there.
"I thought it was an emergency. I asked him: `What?' He said: `I cannot sleep.'"
She says he entered the room and began to try to kiss, hug and grope her. Anne says she instinctively shielded her chest area with her forearm.
"I was holding my breasts ... holding my pajamas, in case he does worse," she recalls in a hushed voice.
"I just talked to him nicely, I did not shout at him. I just said: `No, could you please go back to your room? I don't want trouble.' It was bad, he was trying to touch anything ... trying to prevail on me, trying so hard."
When he finally left the room, she retreated downstairs. Anne turned on the basement light as she went, then locked the bathroom door and began washing her face and neck where he'd tried to kiss her. When she opened the door, the basement light was off.
He had followed her.
``Anne, come here," she remembers him saying. She also recalls, clearly, that he produced a condom from his pocket and pulled down his pajama bottoms.
"He exposed himself. He wants me to do it. But I won't."
The 39-year-old woman, who is married with two children of her own back in the Philippines, did her best to remain calm.
"I said: `You are my employer. I respect you. But please respect me,'... I said, `If you want to masturbate, go to the bathroom and do it yourself.'"
He left and returned to his own room. Anne remained awake the entire night, watching over the young boy, torn over what she should do. She felt responsible for the children, but was fearful for her own safety. Her assailant, after all, was still in the house. His house.
In the morning, the man said nothing directly of the incident. Only, remembers Anne, that "You're an intelligent woman."
The implication was that she should keep quiet. Except Anne is not only intelligent, but she is also a woman of conviction. She had to do something.
Exhausted and distraught, she called a friend. Her next call was to the Toronto Rape Crisis line. She also spoke with a caregiver advocate who recommended that Anne call the police. She did. "And the police picked me up, together with the kids. I rode with them to the police station."
Many nannies, say counsellors in whom they've confided, are too intimidated to take these steps. In some cases, employers have threatened to "deport" those who make waves even though they have no legal authority to do so. In this case, the employer was charged with sexual assault.
Late in April, three days before his first scheduled court appearance, Anne travelled from downtown Toronto to Newmarket. It was a brilliant, sunny spring day as she stepped inside the criminal court building for an appointment with a counsellor at the Ministry of the Attorney General's Victim/Witness Assistance Program.
She, along with Coco Diaz, a counsellor from the advocacy agency Intercede, emerged from the meeting into the waiting room. A multilingual poster pinned to the bulletin board states: "Abuse is Wrong in Any Language."
"Anne is very brave," said the counsellor.
She was also, at least then, in a tenuous position.
Out of pocket for the $3,000 paid to the agency, Anne had worked only two months since her arrival. But the Live-in Caregiver Program clock was ticking. The rule states that she must work two full years within a three-year period if she wants to immigrate. Getting a reference letter (unlikely in this case), finding a new employer, getting a new work permit all of this would eat up more time.
"I have to wait months. (And) I am the victim," she says.
Anne had also learned a hard lesson. "I've learned that here in Canada we have to work harder than in Hong Kong."
After seeking a new employer, things are finally going better for Anne. She's been hired by a nice couple with two kids and says things are going well.
Her former employer faces a trial next spring.
Wei looks and sounds whip-smart.
She met her husband, a pharmacist, while working at that hospital. They have a daughter, now nearly 10. Life in China was good. But in 2001, Wei started thinking life in Canada just might be better.
"I had a very good impression of Canada, that it's a wonderful place to live," she smiles. A wonderful place, too, to eventually bring her husband and child.
She paid an agency in Beijing more than 30,000 renminbi, or about $5,000, to find Wei an employer in the GTA.
In December, Wei said goodbye to her husband and daughter in Nanjing and flew to Toronto. She arrived Dec. 19, 2001 and was taken directly to a nondescript apartment. It was the home of an 89-year-old man with mobility problems a suitable match for a woman with nursing skills.
"At first, I regarded him as my grandpa,'' says Wei. It's an indication of just how complex and blurry boundaries can become when caregivers live with their employers and share meals, conversation and personal space. This living-working arrangement can make relationships, as one advocate puts it, "tricky.'' Very soon, says Wei, this grandfather was making unusual requests.
"Give me a kiss," she says he'd ask, pointing to his cheek.
"When he asked me again and again, I said to him I didn't like it ... (but) He would continue to ask me," she says. "If I did not (kiss him) he was very angry." She had been in the country mere days.
Though it might be tempting to think it was a harmless gesture from an elderly gentleman, Wei says "his mind was very clear," and there was no confusion or senility involved. And, she says, the sexual innuendo only increased.
"He said he `wanted it' (sex) one night," recalls Wei who at that point was not yet familiar with the colloquial term. "Wanted what? I didn't know what it means."
On several occasions, the man also asked Wei (who helped shower him as part of her job) to "`look at his front,'" referring to his genitals. Wei responded by telling him she would ask another nurse, who visited on a weekly basis, to examine him.
"But the next morning, when I asked the (visiting) nurse to check, he said he didn't want that, that he was okay."
Wei says she tried to speak with the man's son, her employer, about what was taking place. He avoided the issue, she says. Wei also recalls receiving in January the paycheque for her first month's work. She had arrived Dec. 19 and worked through all the holidays Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year's Day. She had also worked every single Sunday, which was supposed to be her day off, since her arrival. Parts of Saturdays, too.
The cheque was for $600.
"When his son gave me the cheque, I said: `You put down the wrong number.'"
Many of the nannies interviewed by the Star told of being asked (or simply expected) to work extra hours or baby-sit on their days off but not receiving overtime for that work. The agency had told Wei she would receive $8.50 per hour, plus overtime. What she'd been paid wasn't anywhere close to that.
Wei says she raised this issue with the man's son and grandsons in a professional, business-like manner. They told her that care-giving in Canada was not like her old job at the hospital. This was live-in, they said, and long hours were expected. There was a period of awkward silence, then this:
"He (the son) said: `Stay with my father or leave with this cheque.'"
Wei was stunned.
"I was so disappointed. My tears came out, and I said: `Okay, I'll leave.'"
But to go where?
"I had no place."
Wei packed her bags and called the agency people who had picked her up at Pearson one month earlier. They rented her a room (also common, since nannies are effectively homeless between jobs) and said they'd look for another employer.
In February, 2002 Wei found one a woman in her 50s who had two daughters. One of the girls was about 11, the other about 18. "Nobody had an illness," says Wei, who received a new work permit for the job. Nor were there any toddlers to care for. Wei, with an extensive background in nursing, was simply a glorified maid taking on tasks many housekeepers would balk at.
"It was a big house to clean. And (I had to) look after the dog, also give the dog a shower, sometimes walk it, gardening. I had to cut branches from the trees, wash the car, water the grass, take out the garbage, cook all the meals, every meal, clean all the cleaning, iron and press clothes.''
Her employer expected the food to be flawless with a five-star presentation. The precise amount was to be cooked for every sitting. Yet Wei herself censored what she ate in the home. Several other nannies told the Star of doing the same thing.
"Almost all caregivers fear what the employer thinks about how much we eat or drink ... (It's) The most basic things, but we don't usually speak about these things."
Wei's employer also installed a videocamera in the kitchen for what reason, Wei does not know. But she does know that, after failing to properly turn off a sprinkler system one night (and not having a perfect supper the previous night), that a friend of her employer became enraged:
"He came forward with his hand in a fist. It was like he was threatening, it seems he was threatening me.
"I said to the employer ... I just hope you're happy I'm here. If not, it's not good for you or for me. If you're not happy, I'm not happy either." They agreed to separate.
She landed one more job, caring for a woman with Parkinson's. Though she says it may have been related to the woman's condition, her room was frequently searched. Both of her suitcases, she says, were broken into.
Wei has until December of this year to complete her two full years of employment to meet the requirement for immigration. On May 30, she moved to a home in Brampton, where she's now caring for two children. She likes the family and things are going well.
They'd better. Her previous job switches have eaten nearly a year of her precious time. If a new problem emerges and Wei needs to switch employers again, she won't make her two years and will receive a notice of departure a slip of paper sending her back to Nanjing.
"I'm still trying to do my best to immigrate to Canada,'' she says. ``I think Canada should welcome people who work hard.''
Lana's story is short. And apologetic.
She's sorry that her English isn't great (it's fine). She's sorry that she gets emotional telling her story (most would). She's sorry, in some ways, that she has come to Canada and left her family behind. And that, too, is understandable.
The 40-year-old came to this country in February of this year after paying $6,000 (U.S.) to an agency run by a friend in the Philippines. She went to work for a woman of roughly the same age who required a caregiver. Lana was not given her own room and had to sleep on the couch in the living room.
Her employer was almost always awake. She chain-smoked and watched movies late into the night, just a few feet from Lana. Whenever there was a particularly good scene, she'd awaken Lana for company.
By the weekend, after only a few jet-lagged days in a strange country, Lana was already feeling drained. That's when her employer said she wanted her to come (during her days off) on a trip to Casino Niagara. Lana did not know what a casino even was and asked for some details.
"She said it's like gambling. And I said: `Oh ... let me stay here and clean your house ...' She told me `No, you have to come with me.'"
The employer said she was a personal friend of the manager and that a luxury suite awaited them. It wasn't true. Lana stood on the smoky casino floor, watching her employer lose nickels, for the entire day on Saturday and overnight until Sunday morning. Exhausted, Lana tried to grab a few winks on the couch in the lobby.
"Every time I took a nap, the guard is coming and he said: `Ma'am, you're not allowed to sleep here.' So you have to stand up and walk again. It's really hard. All night you were awake and by morning I was shaking." Her voice falters at the memory.
At around 2:00 a.m. Sunday, they went to the restaurant for a bite. Her employer was running out of nickels and borrowed $20 from Lana who was also asked to pay the bill. Lana says her employer complained about the food and took the refunded money to keep gambling.
By noon that day, Lana had been in the casino and on her feet for nearly 24 hours.
"I told her I have to get some sleep ... and she said: `Just wait!' She's mad already because she doesn't have any money ... I was explaining that I just wanted a few hours' sleep, I'm not planning to quit ... but she don't let me (go and nap). She's like: `You're fired! Go on your way.'"
Lana, who did not yet even know how to take a taxi in Canada, was given a lift by a Filipino couple who saw she was in distress at the casino doors. They let her stay with them for a few days until Lana could get her things. When she picked up her clothes, Lana says her employer shouted angrily that "I don't need your garbage things, your rubbish things.'
"She told me: `Lana I called ... immigration. And I told (them to) deport you because you're not a nice caregiver. You're not doing your job well.'" Several nannies have told the Star of employers threatening to have them deported, even though they are powerless to do so. Often, however, the intimidation achieves a desired result.
When told it seems like she didn't get a lot for her $6,000, Lana begins to softly cry.
The tears roll silently as she explains that she has not told her husband back in the Philippines the full story, only that her employer could not pay. Her voice breaks as she discusses how she feels about the agency and her frustration that she cannot find her voice to confront them.
"I cannot say what I want to say. I cannot say: `Why are you doing me like that?'" Lana says, choking up. "I cannot explain to them: `You're fooling me, you took all this money.'"
Is she happy here?
"Not really." She's sobbing now, heaving.
"I told my husband I don't think I can stay here a long time."
It's clear she's been carrying much, carrying it alone, and carrying it a very long way from home.
"Now it's hard for me," Lana says, regaining a little control. "But maybe after three or four years things will get better. I'm always praying that God will give me a nice employer."
TOMORROW: Caregivers pay
a hefty price for a new life and
the Nanny's Bill of Rights.