Friday, January 11, 2013

Migrant Workers - Part 2

As mentioned in my previous blog post (Migrant Workers - Part 1), Canada's 0.9% of temporary foreign workers with respect to its population is significantly lower than Singapore's 23.8% (or 18.0% Work Permit holders). 

Despite the relatively low levels of temporary foreign labour in Canada, rules stipulating the terms and conditions of such employment are very tight. Let us take a look at the live-in caregivers (a.k.a. domestic maids in Singaporean lingo) for example. 



Canada has very strict and detailed rules regulating the employment of live-in caregivers (a.k.a. domestic maids). [Click here or here for more.] In fact, every potential maid employer needs to submit an application to the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) to justify his/her need for a maid. [And I personally know of a case where the potential maid employer's application was rejected.] 

Thereafter, the "HRSDC/Service Canada officers assess the Labour Market Opinion (LMO) application and all mandatory accompanying documentation and the employment Contract." Yes, the employment contract prior to employment is mandatory. Click here for the template to see the level of details on the terms and conditions of employment. E.g. Place of work, number of rooms and bedrooms, household members, specific person requiring care - i.e. child, elderly, disabled person in the household, work-hours per day, daily work schedule, number and duration of paid/unpaid meal/health breaks, days-off per week on which days of week, paid annual vacation, sick leave, statutory/public holidays, wage, payment frequency, overtime agreement, accommodation standards, maximum accommodation charges/deductions allowed, transportation costs borne by employer, healthcare insurance borne by employer, workplace safety insurance borne by employer, notice for termination. To quote the HRSDC rules regarding wages.
"Employers must offer wages that are equal or higher than those offered to Canadian live-in caregivers in their region. This requirement was put in place to make sure that:
  • It is not more attractive for an employer to hire a foreign worker than a Canadian worker;
  • The entry of foreign workers does not put downward pressure on Canadian wages;
  • The foreign workers are compensated in an equitable and adequate manner for their work in Canada." 
[Note: Compare the above to Singapore's "NTUC says 'no' to equal pay for all nationalities'Same job-equal pay' rule will put local workers and families at a disadvantage".]
Given the tight regulation, Canadians generally do not have an issue with the presence of foreign live-in caregivers. The issue in Canada is that despite all the rules regulating the employment of live-in caregivers in Canada, cases of labour exploitation do surface every now and then. [Click here and here, or see Appendix A below.] Such cases are proactively investigated by the Canadian mainstream media. E.g. 12-Oct-2011, CBC News "VIDEO: Abuse of caregivers no surprise to advocates" -- "Advocates are outraged but not surprised to hear about live-in caregivers treated like slaves in B.C.", reports the CBC's Natalie Clancy. Oh yes, at 1:55 of the video, the reporter probed the Minister of Immigration, Jason Kenny on how he intends to deal with the issue of exploitation of live-in caregivers, and IMHO, he didn't look too happy to have to answer such questions but he answered them anyway.



In Singapore, employment of temporary foreign workers are covered under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act which mainly to deal with the handling of Employment Pass, S-Pass and/or Work Permit and the general Employment Act. However, domestic maids are specifically excluded from coverage under the Employment Act and the Workmen's Compensation Act. Thus, they are left to the mercy of the agent and their employer because "Ministry of Manpower (MOM) encourages employers and their FDWs to enter into a written employment contract" -- quote MOM on Work Permit (Foreign Domestic Worker). "Encourages", in short, no black-and-white is mandatory.

You can read here on what UNHCR Human Rights Watch has to say about the situation of domestic workers abuse in Singapore (dated 07-Dec-2005). Even giving the domestic workers a weekly day off required much advocacy by NGOs (Non-government Organizations) before the government would finally grant domestic workers a weekly rest day -- albeit one that "falls short of international standards, Human Rights Watch said".



I would like to highlight certain points worth thinking about when comparing the live-in caregiver (foreign domestic worker) situations in Canada and Singapore.

1. Employment Contract.
In Canada, the employment contract is compulsory and the terms and conditions for employment are part and parcel of the decision whether to approve a family's application to employ a live-in caregiver.  
In Singapore, MOM decides not to dirty its hands over making an employment contract compulsory because "It is not practical to regulate specific aspects of domestic work, i.e. hours of work, work on a rest day and on public holidays". IMHO, it means that some bureaucrats with iron rice bowls decided that requiring a contract to protect a vulnerable segment of employees (208,400 of them as of Jun-2012) is not important enough to be worth their efforts. I guess it's easy for these bureaucrats to decide so -- these 208,400 lives are not their mothers, wives, sisters or daughters. Maybe, if Lee Kuan Yew's words ["Your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people's countries"] come true someday, maybe then these bureaucrats will wake up to recognize that being a maid does not make one any less of a human -- any less deserving of being treated with human dignity.
2. Role of media
In Canada, you see the mainstream media doing investigative journalism proactively. Even to the extend of probing the ministers with difficult questions
In Singapore, when you read/hear about a maid being abused in the mainstream media, it is often in the context of a court case being reported. Investigative journalism? Perhaps that is the domain of activists or NGOs. [Click here and here for example.]
3. Singaporean's attitude towards FDW
The following factors combined:
  • the lack of discussion of issues faced by foreign domestic workers in the mainstream media,  
  • the potential language/cultural barrier between the foreign domestic workers and their employers;
IMHO, have a side effect where Singaporeans tend "objectify" their FDW and forget that they are dealing with human beings -- real-life flesh-and-blood with human vulnerabilities, feelings, needs and wants, not some robotic automaton. Remember the kind of objections Singaporeans put up against allowing their maids to have a weekly day off?
We can conclude from the above that in live-in caregivers (a.k.a. foreign domestic workers) are more vulnerable in Singapore than in Canada.



Why is it that despite the tight regulation of live-in caregivers and the more favourable environment in Canada, there are still cases of exploitation? Is it true after all -- what the Singapore MOM says about the difficulty of regulating domestic work? 

This is where we delve into the darker side of human nature. Those who have read William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" would understand. If that's fiction, then consider the real life "Stanford prison experiment". Even artificially-created temporary situation of imbalance of power has the potential to encourage abusive behaviours. Live-in caregivers (a.k.a. domestic maids) are in effect "imprisoned" in their work location, except for their days off. In fact, the CBC video highlighted (at 1:37) that the "live-in requirement" is what's turning foreign workers into slaves.
[Aside: In the CBC video, Krystle Alarcon from the Philippine Women Centre suggested (at 1:45) that the need for live-in caregivers is a failure of the Canadian/provincial governments to provide the necessary support services for children, elderly and the disabled.]
If a simple employment situation can turn for the worse for the live-in caregivers in Canada, then what of the probability of abuse for the foreign domestic workers in Singapore? Remember we concluded above that the live-in caregivers (a.k.a. foreign domestic workers) are more vulnerable in Singapore than in Canada. 
Note: IMHO, a mandatory weekly day-off allows maids to escape from their workplace location. If abuse is suspected/alleged, it gives the maids' friends or the maid herself a chance to seek help. However, only the FDWs whose Singapore work permit are issued or renewed from 1st January 2013 will be given a weekly rest day or compensation in lieu. That means that it may be a couple of years before all maids in Singapore get their well-deserved weekly day-off. In addition, IMHO, in allowing the option of a "compensation in lieu" of the mandatory day-off, detection of abuse is more likely to be delayed if the employer pressurizes the maid to accept "prolonged imprisonment" in exchange for compensation at the beginning of the contract (before the employer launches into abusive behaviour).
The next logical question to follow is, is there any recourse for maids who are exploited?
  • In Canada, the mandatory detailed Employment Contract between the live-in caregiver and the employer is a starting point. Beyond that, HRSDC rules governing the employment of live-in caregivers would apply, followed by general employment, health and workplace safety rules applicable to all employees in Canada.
  • In Singapore, domestic workers are specifically excluded from the protection of the Employment Act and the Workmen's Compensation Act. Only when there is evidence of bodily harm inflicted on the maids can the abusive employer be charged under criminal laws handled by the Attorney-General's Chamber (AGC). [Note: The AGC handles criminal cases; seeking recourse for the abused maid is not its objective.]
What about other situations of alleged exploitation and/or discrimination? Many a times, such cases are situations of "he says vs she says" when they reach the judiciary. In the next 2 instalments (part 3 and part 4) we shall look at how things pan out in Canada from examples of the following situations.

APPENDIX A - The Vancouver Observer, "Canada's Modern-day Slaves"

Canada's Modern-day Slaves
[Extracted from The Vancouver Observer]
By Krystle Alarcon, Posted: Nov 9th, 2012

Jane Macaraeg, a quiet former honour student in her late 20s, was raised by maids in the Philippines and never thought she would tend to children herself one day.

She tore her wrist tendons when she pulled out a child from behind a deep freezer while on contract as a nanny for a BC household. Instead of being thanked for saving the child from injury while hurting herself, her employer reprimanded her.

"She told me I should've just left him there," Macaraeg said. "I thought: 'If he electrocuted himself, she would have blamed me even more'."

Macaraeg is one of thousands of nannies who have to jump through hoops before gaining a shot at the ultimate prize—a new life in Canada. 

She was recruited though the Live-in Caregiver Program, a stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) designed to fill labour shortages in Canada. A recently released report by labour lawyer Fay Faraday in Ontario revealed that the legal structure of the TFWP sets up migrant workers for abuse.

Faraday recognizes that only live-in caregivers in the low-skilled category of the TFWP have access to permanent residency in Canada, a perk that makes it seem like they’re better off. 

But caregivers are also prone to abuse just like all other migrant workers, she argues, as they are also tied to their employer and thus cannot change jobs if mistreated. 

A report by the Toronto Star noted that several caregivers complained of “being forced to work 12 to 15 hour days without overtime, days off or even minimum wage”. 

Even if they do get minimum wage, they answer to their employers’ beck and call 24 hours a day, as they are forced to live with them. They are only paid for eight hours worth of work. Considering the only recently-augmented minimum wage of BC at $10.25, that amounts to $4.64 per hour including taxes and rest time. 

Ai Li Lim, who represents nannies in legal battles with the West Coast Domestic Workers Association, said, most caregivers and employers do not keep track of the overtime. Still, the live-in requirement creates a power relationship that’s hard to avoid. “Would a caregiver be able to say that she is not going to pick up the crying baby at 3 a.m. in the morning because it is personal time?” 

The caregivers are also forced to pay for their own boarding with their meagre salaries. In BC, employers are allowed to charge up to $325 for the room.

In other provinces, they are better off. In Quebec, it's free. In Ontario, the pay deduction for rent cannot exceed $85.25, according to Farraday’s report. 

For employers, the Live-in Caregiver Program is much more affordable than a daycare program—even middle-class families can benefit from it. A live-in nanny costs around $1200 to $1600 per month while daycare in BC can cost up to $1500.

Farraday’s 120-page paper, entitled “Made In Canada: How the Law Constructs Migrant Workers’ Insecurity”, looked particularly at low-skilled workers’ conditions. She interviewed about a hundred migrant workers from four streams: the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, the Live-in Caregiver Program and two categories of the Pilot Project for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training, through which migrant workers become “permanently temporary”, Farraday said. 

Live-in caregivers at risk 

She pointed out that the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) is “highly gendered and racialized” compared to the other streams—up to 95 per cent of caregivers are women from the Philippines. 

In fact, out of 39,120 caregivers recruited to the LCP in Canada in 2009, 35,290 were from the Philippines, representing 90 per cent. But Farraday noted that Filipina caregivers come from all over the world and that not all directly travel from the Philippines to Canada.

“They are here on time-limited permits, which can actually be quite lengthy,” she said. The caregivers’ contracts stipulate that they fulfill 24 months or 3,900 hours of work in the span of four years to apply for residency—after which they can sponsor their families to join them in Canada.

The processing time to get their permanent status takes up to two years, which means caregivers are separated from their own children for an average of seven years.

Lim said that live-in caregivers are uniquely vulnerable because of that glimmering promise of permanent residency in Canada. 

“(The women) are unwilling or unable to sometimes seek recourse because they feel that if they do so, they would be jeopardizing their immigration status,” she said. 

That was precisely why Ria and Jane Macaraeg put up with unpaid overtime, fulfilled tasks beyond their contract and suffered physical and emotional pain from the job. They are a Vancouver-based mother and daughter duo whose names have been changed to protect them against retribution from their employers. 

“I’m taking care of two kids, but they want the house to be tidy and clean, as if there’s no kid at all. I feel like a slave… I’m doing everything,” Ria, the mother, said.

“Everything” means cooking, doing laundry, washing cars and trimming lawns—household chores that are not included in nannies' contracts. 

Ria actually made a list of all the overtime work, hoping that her employers would pay for it. 

They never did. And she’ll never get it back. The Employment Standards Act of Canada allows workers to collect only the last six months worth of back pay.

The live-in requirement creates an ongoing sense of obligation and reinforces the entitlement of the employer to do as they please.  

“It is the whole privacy of the home thing, where people don’t think about the Employment Standards Branch breaking into a private home to see what’s going on in there,” Lim said.

After almost six years in the Live-in Caregiver Program, Ria learned to toughen up. 

“Just try not to let them enslave you too much. If they take advantage of you, answer back at least,” she said. 

She’s still on the waiting list to get her permanent residency, even if she completed her contract two years ago. Ria believes that single women with no children tend to get status faster because her daughter, who came two years later than her, already has her residency.

Her daughter, Jane, didn't want to follow in her mother’s footsteps by jumping from employer to employer. She stuck it out with her first and only employer for 24 straight months. Ria, meanwhile, had switched employers three times so her contract was reset, meaning that some of the time she worked was not accounted for. 

But Jane stuck it out—even when her work was not compensated at all. "Everytime she travelled for her summer and Christmas vacations, I didn't get paid," she said. "For two years I put up with that."

She lamented about the permanent tendinitis she developed on her wrist the day she pulled out the eldest from behind a freezer while she was taking care of his sibling, a baby and their friends on top of that. When the employer found out, she said Jane should have left him there.

“She twisted her wrist!” Ria said, wide-eyed and flustered. “And then the employer got mad at her, she said my daughter should have just left her son there. Well, that’s fine with her because she’s the mother. But we’re the nanny…what if something happened?” she said. 

Tendinitis was the least of Ria’s injuries. Over the course of her contracts, she developed gallstones, plantar fasciitis and carpal tunnel which she thinks she got from all the stressful situations—which she described as both physical and emotional—because she tended to the needs of other people’s kids while she was unable to see her own. 

They elbow each other and laugh off the pain together as Ria goes through her slew of injuries. “It’s bittersweet,” she said chuckling, “because as I suffer here, at least I can put my kids through school in the Philippines.” 

Overqualified nannies 

A former teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Food and Science nutrition, Macaraeg speaks uncomfortably in English—a skill she said she lost because of the isolated work in her employers’ homes, which is  ironic considering she moved to Canada. 

She’s not the only caregiver who lost her skills through the Live-in Caregiver Program—one study found that 63 per cent of LCP applicants held a bachelors degree or higher. Under their temporary permits, migrant workers are not allowed to pursue any form of education.

Despite all the troubles, Ria is a willing caregiver who does it “out of heart".

She just wishes she got paid more. She recently looked after a hyperactive child while replacing her friend for an appointment. She described him as a “worm”, the type who “never sits down”.

“I almost died. Those two hours were like two weeks. I said, ‘How do you put up with that?’ And we get paid minimum wage.

“It’s not because of the workload that you stop. It’s eight dollars an hour. Now it’s $10.25. That’s still not enough. I have so many bills…so many bills in the Philippines and here,” she said.

In her 2009 report, independent researcher and activist Salimah who completed her doctoral studies on Filipina women who migrate to Canada said caregivers are more prone to reprisal because their status and future depend on their employers. She cited incidents of verbal, physical and sexual abuse, unlivable housing conditions and the confiscation of important documents such as passports, good referral letters or records of employment (ROE).  

An employer Ria worked for in Langley for three years refused to give her her ROE and a good referral after because she left on short notice when they did not pay her for overtime work. Ria needs the ROE so she can obtain an open work permit—which will allow her to work in other industries since she has completed her LCP contract.

Farraday said low-wage workers in general tend not to complain to the authorities over employment violations until after they quit and find work elsewhere. Adding temporary status to their conditions makes them even more docile.

“If they complain about their working conditions or their living conditions, they risk not only losing their jobs but also becoming homeless,” she said. 

Another concern for Faraday for all migrant workers entering through the low-skilled categories is that their work permits tie them to a specific employer for the duration of their contract, an aspect that debilitates workers’ mobility. She recommends that work permits be designated to an industry or a province.

Valiani describes the promise for permanent residency at the end of a caregivers’ contract as a “carrot and stick” situation – and it is not always guaranteed. Valiani found that barely half—only 53 per cent—of caregivers actually gain residency, considering retention rates between 2003 to 2007.

Ultimately, Farraday does not agree with temporary labour as a solution to Canada’s shortage of workers—that workers should be coming to Canada as permanent residents upon arrival. 

“Temporary migration must not be permitted to facilitate, institutionalize and normalize a second-tier, low-wage/low-rights “guest worker” program, and Canada’s dependence on temporary migration must be reversed,” she stated in the report. 

“This is not just a case of one bad apple here, one bad apple there,” Faraday said. 

“It’s important to recognize that these horror stories would keep coming forward because we’ve created a system that leaves the workers open to exploitation.”




  1. I heard that if any one wants to migrant to Canada he/she need to 67 points.

    1. Hi Tajrina,

      Not sure which scheme of migration visa you're referring to. The previous Federal Skilled Migrant Program (where the point-system was used) is still being suspended, except for PhD students enrolled in Canada.

      You may wish to check out my reply to TT who asked a similar question but who provided more details about himself in my other unrelated blog post.

      For other options to migrate to Canada, please refer to the Canadian Immigration and Citizenship (CIC) website for details.

      IMHO, migration is an important decision. My 2 cents suggestion: do not rely on hearsay (or believe 100% in a migration agent) to make such a potentially life-changing decision; find out the facts for yourself from the horse's mouth (i.e. CIC website).

      Cheers, WD.