Ten thousand “open work permits” have been issued to foreign caregivers across Canada in a move one activist said frees them from bondage and slavery.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s orders came in response to a year-long Star investigation that found foreign nannies were treated as servants and forced to stay with one employer. Often, their passports were held by families that hired them, paying wages far below the poverty line.
“Finally they are released from bondage, the bondage of poverty, slavery and neglect,” said Terry Olayta, coordinator of the Toronto Caregiver Resource Centre. She said the average nanny nets about $250 a week.
“If we truly want to eliminate poverty, if we really want to eliminate neglect, exploitation and slavery, that is the thing to do — expedite their open work permits.”
Until the federal immigration department’s move, caregivers had to wait as long as two years for an open permit. Many were kept in abusive and exploitive work situations and forced to live in their employer’s home long after their original contract ended.
With an open permit, granted after their work requirements under the federal Live-In Caregiver program are met, caregivers are now free to take another job and move out of their sponsor’s homes while they wait for a decision on their applications for permanent residency.
Olayta said her group submitted a report to Kenney last September asking for just that. Waiting times for open permits in recent years had gone from just a few weeks to as much as 24 months, a situation she said kept some caregivers indentured and at the mercy of abusive employers.
One of the cases of alleged exploitation highlighted by the Star involved former Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla. Nannies complained to the newspaper they were hired by Dhalla to work at the family home in Mississauga and routinely toiled five days a week, earning $250 a week for 12- to 16-hour days. Plus the Dhalla family did not obtain the necessary federal approval under the Live-In Caregiver Program for the women to live and work in their home.
“After serious allegations of abuse were brought forward by live-in caregivers against Ruby Dhalla, the Minister engaged in consultations with various live-in caregivers regarding how to further improve the program. This policy is a direct result of those consultations,” said Kenney’s press secretary, Candice Malcolm.
In an interview at the time, Dhalla said she was “shocked and appalled” at the allegations.
“Anyone who has ever worked in our home has been treated with a lot of love, with a lot of care and compassion and money has never, ever been withheld from anyone,” Dhalla told the Starin an interview.
The Star series also prompted the Ontario government to pass legislation to further protect nannies. The new law makes it illegal for anyone to charge placement fees either directly or indirectly, putting the onus on the employer to pick up any costs involved with the recruiting and hiring of nannies.
The investigation showed widespread abuse with some recruiters charging as much as $10,000 for bogus jobs. Caregivers also complained of having to work 12- to 16-hour days for employers without being paid any overtime, and of being afraid to complain for fear of jeopardizing their applications for landed status.
Under the terms of the Live-In Caregiver program, applicants are obliged to work for two years, or 3,900 hours, and then become eligible to apply for permanent residence. In both 2009 and 2010, about five per cent of all permanent residents to Canada were admitted through the program.
In a press release, Kenney says the granting of open permits will go a long way to address those issues.
“Too many live-in caregivers have completed their work obligations but must continue living in the home of their employer, waiting for their application for permanent residence to be reviewed,” Kenney said.
“This is understandably frustrating. That’s why we have started issuing open work permits to live-in caregivers as soon as they have completed their obligations and submitted an application for permanent residence.
“The change I have announced (Thursday) will help caregivers settle into their new life in Canada while they wait for their permanent resident applications to be processed,” Kenney said in a statement
Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North) said he applauds the issuing of open work permits to live-in caregivers, saying there is little doubt that some have been taken advantage of.
“Quite often there are employers I would classify as questionable and they can make very difficult for a live-in caregivers … so the government is moving in the right direction saying they can change employers,” he said.
However, Lamoureux said there are issues that need to be resolved that are equally important, one of them being the treatment of caregiver when they get sick while they are working in Canada. He said now if it is serious enough they are deported.
“I have had dozens of stories told to me with regard to this whole health issue and to me that issue is just as important as the exploitation issue because the health issue has just as much as an impact, if not more, than exploitation issue,” he said.
As of Sunday, all live-in caregivers who have met their obligations and who have submitted an application for permanent residence have had their files reviewed. Those who submitted an open work permit application with no missing information are being issued open work permits, according to the immigration department.
In 2010, Citizenship and Immigration Canada admitted a record 14,000 permanent residents through the Live-in Caregiver Class, the news release stated. The program allows Canadian families to hire workers from abroad to provide care for a child, en elderly person or an adult with disabilities.
Ottawa has taken a number of steps to protect live-in caregivers from abuse and exploitation with regulatory improvements in the program in 2010 and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in 2011, according to the immigration department.
In the wake of the Star stories, the Ontario government set up a hotline where nannies can call and report any abuse or exploitation, and the federal government instituted a system to black list bad employers. Anyone found to be abusing a temporary foreign worker would be banned from being able to employ one for at least two years.