Oct. 31, 2004
On his first night in Canada, three years ago, Jesus Calicdan Jr. found himself in a basement beneath a business on Eglinton Ave. W. A dozen caregivers surrounded him on beat-up couches and mattresses on the floor.A few approached him, asked him where he was from — the Philippines — and asked him how much he paid — $6,000 (U.S.) — to work in Toronto.
Most of the caregivers were women. One was crying.
"(She'd) stayed there for too long, begging for work," recalls Calicdan, now 34. "But no work for six months."
They all told him one basic truth: He was about to experience things he would not like. And then, they told him to keep quiet. "They were afraid ... somebody might be deported."
The next day, Calicdan found out his employer didn't need him any more. The owner of the agency that brought him into the country, Cecilia Agtarap, assured him she'd find him another job, that she'd look after him.
"Don't worry," Agtarap told him. He remembers hearing the same refrain every day for the next three months. Calicdan worried he was being deceived and tried to think of a way out.
For what felt like a very long time, he had no choice but to continue living with the others in the apartment under the agency, crying and listening to the others cry.
People seeking to apply for Canada's Live-In Caregiver Program pay thousands of dollars to Canadian agencies in exchange for a promise: They will find you an employer.Often, those agencies fulfil that promise and the caregiver feels she got her money's worth.
But sometimes that doesn't happen. Sometimes caregivers get cheated. Employers terminate the caregivers' contracts before they arrive and then agencies refuse to give refunds or simply vanish with the cash.
Sometimes caregivers like Calicdan make it all the way to Canada, only to find that there is no employer and nowhere for them to live. They don't want to stay at the agency or with friends for long because the clock is ticking. Under the program, they have three years to complete two years of live-in work to qualify for permanent residency.
They have mortgaged homes, borrowed from loan sharks, scraped together their life savings and given all of their money to agencies. And unscrupulous agencies can take the money and leave them with nothing — because no one is watching.
Advocacy groups, enforcement officers and lawyers say agencies are free to do what they want. No regulatory body governs them and they don't need a licence to operate. They used to be licensed by the Ontario labour ministry, but in 2001, the province did away with the regulatory act that prevented or limited agencies from charging a fee to individuals seeking jobs.
Police investigate agencies running scams — some pay fake employers to apply for nannies that they don't need. Advocacy groups and the Philippine consulate field calls from women crying about greedy agencies. Everyday, people pay. And because so many agencies are now charging the nannies, more established agencies — which charge the families doing the hiring — are folding.
"An unbelievable number of agencies can't survive," says Marna Martin, who has advocated for more integrity in the industry. "How do you compete with free? If you're charging a fee to the families, you're competing against all these other agencies that are charging the girls and placing for free."
Calicdan and his six younger brothers grew up in Pangasinan, Philippines. His mother was the district supervisor of an elementary school, his father a municipal agrarian reform officer. His brothers became professionals: a lawyer, nurse, certified public accountant, student of mass communication.
He graduated with a degree in physical therapy. But back home, it's different, he says. "If you're a certified public accountant, if you're a department head, you're going to earn 20,000 pesos a month or (less than) $500," he says.
One day, he saw an ad in a newspaper: "Canada wants you!"
"My friends said Canada is a peaceful and good country. And of course, it's a winter country. I said, why not try?" He took an hour-long bus ride to a nearby town, Moncada, to enrol at the Toronto Family Health Care School for six months.
"They told me, if you enrol in this program and you decide to go to Canada — if you pay $6,000 — you're going to have an employer within 24 hours because we have a partner in Toronto."
The manager of the training centre referred him to Cecilia Agtarap, 46, who runs Cecilia Agtarap & Associates. Agtarap, who was born in Moncada, founded the health-care school. Its main branch is in Toronto.
Calicdan's family sold a hectare of land and he used all his savings to pay the fee. On Aug. 14, 2001, the affable, soft-spoken man arrived at Pearson airport with two pieces of luggage and $300 (U.S.) in his pocket.
The next day, in the basement under Agtarap's Eglinton office, he began to worry. Agtarap told Calicdan his employer put her elderly mother into a nursing home and did not need his services any more.
He tried to stay calm. "Back home, if you're a very expressive guy, maybe one day you'll be killed."
But Calicdan was running out of money. And he was not allowed to work in Canada. Even if he found a new employer, he couldn't work until Human Resources and Skills Development Canada granted him a new work permit; that could take months.
So while he was waiting for an employer, he had eyes for everything. He took in every detail. He was planning to save himself and his friends.
Not so long ago, agencies were under close scrutiny. The province watched them, kept them from charging caregivers or controlled how much they could charge. Under the Employment Agencies Act, Ontario agencies were charged $500 for a licence and a book was published of licensed agencies.
If the labour ministry thought your business would be unlawful, dishonest or unethical, if it thought you had money troubles, it could refuse to issue a licence, ministry spokesperson Belinda Sutton says.
The act was eliminated, effective March 31, 2001. She says the ministry felt regulating agencies fell outside its mandate.
"The relationship between job applications and placement agencies is commercial in nature, relating to the provision of services, and is not an employment relationship."
Sutton says people who have complaints about agencies concerning bias or harassment can contact the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Martin, of the Canadian Coalition for In-home Care, a lobby group comprising caregivers, employers and agencies, says the deregulated industry is a horror story.
"What they wanted was for the agencies to start self-policing. But you can't self-police this one," says Martin, president of Oakville-based Trafalgar Personnel. "It's almost depressing for people who've been working in the caregiver industry. There are so many agencies processing people to come into false jobs and people sponsoring their family members. The caregivers are paying ridiculous amounts of money."
Donald Mills, who helps his sister operate Caregivers of Canada Ltd., says since agencies were deregulated, his sister's 17-year-old business has suffered.
"It's killed legitimate businesses," Mills says from his Oakville office. "A lot of good businesses have closed down. It seems to be survival of the worst.
"The fact that put us off is that the agencies are bleeding the girls," he says. "Some of these agencies promise the girls the moon if they come here."
Legitimate agencies in Ontario say they receive much unsolicited e-mail from foreign agents — especially those based in Hong Kong. They offer steep commissions (often $2,000 or more) for placing each caregiver. "There is no problem on recruiting the Filipina maids in Hong Kong because all want to work and stay in Canada," says a letter from Mandy Tsang, director of the Yichi Service Employment Company in Hong Kong.
The letter also spells out how that commission would be received: payment due soon after the nanny touches down. Mills says he received an e-mail from an Israeli agency offering $7,500 per caregiver placed. "Where do you think that money comes from?" he says. "The girls." His agency charges the employer $1,280, while other agencies don't have such a fee.
A random telephone survey of about a dozen agencies in Toronto resulted in a range of practices and much confusion about what is allowed. Some say it's illegal to charge the caregivers, while others say employers should not have to pay.
In most cases, caregivers pay agencies a few thousand dollars.
Calicdan says he doesn't exactly remember when he decided to go the police.
"I knew everyone around there was crying, crying, crying. I told myself that I needed to do something." A friend referred him to Inspector Rick Moss, an RCMP diversity liaison officer.
"He had quite a story," Moss remembers. The friendly, easygoing officer has been with the Mounties for 25 years. "He didn't know what to do."
Moss met with him. "I think he felt helpless initially. I remember telling him that he hadn't done anything wrong and that we would try to help him.
"I really felt sorry for those guys. They're such nice kids. They just wanted to come here and do well."
Moss contacted Constable Paul Hayle, who investigates violations of the Immigration Act. He arranged a meeting a week later and sat in to make Calicdan feel more comfortable.
Hayle had been in the department for about eight months when he first met Calicdan on Dec. 4, 2001. They met at Toronto police 13 Division, down the street from Agtarap's business.
"Jesus ... is very well-educated. He's no dummy," Hayle says. "The whole idea was to come to Canada, work for a couple years and send money back to his family. It took a lot of guts on his part (to speak out). He was pretty angry. He brought forward a lot of other people."
Calicdan convinced three caregivers to come forward and file complaints against Agtarap. "I told them that I talked to RCMP. We can help each other."
One of the first caregivers he asked to join his fight was Jaycen Olavario. He told 27-year-old Olavario to meet him at another agency, and when Olavario showed up, Calicdan was waiting with a police officer.
"We were sort of relieved that somebody started it," Olavario says. "We have nothing to lose. We've already lost a lot, we have nothing else.
"We came here to have a better future. To put in so much effort and so much money to the point where you are buried in debt just to pay the fee, and to find out that you don't have a permanent job? And how hard it was to explain to our family that ... we would not be able to help them pay back the money they borrowed, the interest, the principal. They, too, were struggling back home. It was so hard."
Calicdan moved into the home of a woman who ran another agency. Police investigated Agtarap for more than a year, including taking victim statements and searching her office.
Agtarap was charged with 17 offences under the Immigration Act involving 11 caregivers. The charges included inducing third parties to sponsor caregivers from abroad (sometimes by paying them) and making false promises of employment.
An agreed statement of facts says fake employers signed bogus applications — blank applications — in exchange for money — in one case $2,500.
In a plea bargain, she pleaded guilty to three counts, and last March she was placed on probation for 12 months, ordered to perform 150 hours of community service and fined $5,000.
Agtarap says all the allegations against her are false, adding she pleaded guilty to avoid any more pain. "I could not pay my lawyer any more, so that's why I accepted the fault. I didn't want any more stress."
She says all she wanted to do was help people. "I helped (caregivers) once they came, I gave them lodging. Once I gave them a job, they're not happy."
Agtarap allowed nannies to stay in the basement of her business — her daughters stayed there as well, she says — because sometimes employers no longer required their services or the caregivers simply did not like working there.
And because the Live-in Caregiver Program requires that the employee "live in" with the employer, being out of a job means you're effectively homeless. Agtarap says she was simply trying to help them until a new employer could be found. She's also rescued caregivers from other agencies who've housed them without food, she says.
Other jealous agencies manipulated caregivers into reporting her to police, Agtarap says.
"This is not fair. I'm the only one who is accused for this. I told myself, `God knows everything.' I don't want to cry any more. Now it's very painful. ... You do good today and they will forget tomorrow."
Her family's companies, The Sisters Employment and Paralegal Services Inc. and Northern Star Immigration and Legal Services Inc., still operate on Eglinton Ave. W., according to government corporate registries. Her daughters are listed as directors of these businesses. Since the court case, she's handed her businesses over to her daughters, friends and family and closed down one of her schools. She says she helps out there once in awhile.
Since Agtarap's case concluded, Hayle has transferred to the drugs section, but he still gets calls from caregivers saying they've been cheated by agencies. Moss is working on the Ipperwash inquiry.
Their colleagues are now busy investigating other dishonest agencies. They run scams in which they apply to the human resources department on behalf of unaware or fake employers or they pay employers to apply for foreign caregivers.
A spokesperson for the department says according to its guidelines, every employer is directly contacted to prevent fraudulent applications.
Corporal Tom Baldwin, with the RCMP's Milton branch, has worked on several investigations this year, and has received complaints from the public about people's names being used on applications for caregivers without their knowledge.
He says there are likely more cases of caregiver abuse that no one hears about. "You get a lot of people who are defrauded in foreign countries, so we can't do anything about it."
Baldwin says many cases involving caregivers and agencies tread a fine line between civil and criminal matters. "There's no regulation to say what the price is to do so and so." He says cases of human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants are the RCMP's top priority.
Toronto lawyer Jess Antonio sues agencies that exploit women. He's working on 10 cases in Small Claims Court. "They charge these caregivers money and they don't provide a service," he says. "These girls come from Third World countries and for these agencies to charge them a couple thousand dollars, that's a whole year's pay."
Rolando Rico Olalia, the consular officer in labour for the Philippine consulate-general in Toronto, says he documents the names of dishonest agencies and notifies the labour department in the Philippines. He says he also answers e-mails from women in the Philippines asking to check the legitimacy of Canadian agencies, but he's not sure how to do so.
Advocacy groups and agencies say some caregivers who come here and don't find jobs go underground. "A lot of jobs they come for are phony jobs, so they come into Canada ... and float around looking for work," says Mills. "They call us day in and day out looking for work.... The pool of legitimate girls is getting less and less."
The lack of enforcement and clear regulations governing agencies allows some unscrupulous agencies to take advantage of people like Calicdan and many others interviewed. Few victims dare to speak. Almost all who do, do so on the condition of anonymity. They fear reprisal and deportation.
Some go on to find other jobs and focus on finishing the Live-In Caregiver Program, pushing the bad experiences to the back of their minds.
Calicdan found a job caring for a 91-year-old man with Alzheimer's in February, 2002. He's applied for landed-immigrant status and is awaiting approval. Word is expected any day now. He's also taking a physiotherapy course.
He doesn't smile when he talks about his experiences involving Agtarap. But he does when he talks about his wife and their recent wedding. In June, he married one of the women he met while staying with Agtarap. Their wedding portrait hangs on the wall of his room in his employer's apartment.
Also on his wall is a poem: "Life is a gift, accept it. ... Life is a tragedy, face it. Life is a journey, complete it."
He hopes his fight will inspire others. "We did this because a lot of people are in the same boat. We fought for ourselves and for those who are applying to Canada and who will be victimized by agencies."