The International Woman: Migrant Caregivers and Vulnerability to Abuse in the Workplace

Written by Melissa Cederqvist

Researched by Melissa Cederqvist & Eudoxie Sallaz for PINAY

In 1984, Audre Lorde wrote “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” challenging white academic feminists about their positions as knowledge-producers and revealing the dangers inherent in the presumption that this group could claim to speak for all women. She spoke about the impossibility of a homogeneous experience of womanhood and emphasized the importance of recognizing difference. In particular, she highlighted that professional women constitute a class unto themselves, reliant on the cheap domestic labour of other women, predominantly women of colour, who have made it possible for this former class of women to enter the workforce in large numbers. Lorde wrote:

“But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist… If white American feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and poor women and women of Color?”(1)

Economic globalization has produced an international workforce wherein many groups, and especially women, experience systemic marginalization in their migration for employment opportunities outside their country of origin.(2) In Canada, this is true for those working under federal migrant worker programs like the former Live- in Caregiver Program (LCP). Caregiver programs(3) in particular raise a vast number of immigration law, labour law, human rights, and public policy issues(4) and challenge common narratives of solidarity among all women.

PINAY(5) is a Filipino women’s organization in Quebec founded in 1991, which promotes the “basic rights and welfare of the Filipino migrant workers in Canada.”(6)

Canadian Demand for Domestic Workers

Caregiver programs exist because the demand for domestic workers in Canada, with similar pay and conditions, would be “impossible to fill without foreign recruitment, even during periods of high unemployment.”(7) The program allows an advanced capitalist country like Canada to gain access to labour that is particularly vulnerable, unfettered by unionization, and lacks workers’ rights.(8)

The labour force participation of Canadian women began to rapidly increase in the 1970s consistent with other advanced capitalist countries. Along with this change came the increasing dependence of families on two incomes, creating “what has been described as the crisis in the domestic sphere.”(9) The lack of adequate public options meant the work of raising children and domestic labour remained in the private sphere.(10) In Canada, federal and provincial cuts under neoliberal policy reduced the number of affordable day care options. These conditions “exacerbate[d] a demand for care workers, while economic inequity fuel[ed] women from less wealthy countries to accept global employment options.”(11)

As a result, families with means have sought migrant women to meet their need for domestic and child-rearing labour,(12) deflecting demand for public day care options by acquiring such care privately. This allows “Canadian women (mostly white) [to] access relatively high-paying, high-status professions through employing affordable live-in caregivers (mostly racialized).”(13)

Caregiver Supply

There are strong push factors which account for a woman’s willingness(14) to give up “personal careers, family support, and the familiarity of home for the benefit of their family” for years at a time in order to take up employment as a caregiver elsewhere.(15) The effects of globalization on the economy of countries like the Philippines are a primary motivation for this outflow of women migrants. This stems from the unequal global economic order within which the women find themselves, caught in an exchange “between rich countries and impoverished countries.”(16)

The 1980s economic crisis left the Philippines indebted “to Western banks and subject to the stringent requirements of the International Monetary Fund” which has resulted in much economic hardship for its citizens.(17) Inordertofinanceitsdebt, thegovernmentof the Philippines has increasingly relied on the exportation of female domestic workers. It has encouraged such migration by setting up “schooling and recruitment agencies, and remittances [have become] a crucial part of building their nation’s economy,”(18) bringing in an estimated $25 billion US a year.(19) What drives the search for employment abroad, even with poor working conditions, is lack of opportunity at home. And even as the number of people forced to migrate continues to increase, migration is often touted as a policy solution for poverty and underdevelopment in sending countries.

The transnational family structure is also essential to understanding why caregivers are often willing to tolerate the working conditions of the programs. Migrant caregivers are often a major provider for their families. As many as 83% of caregivers support family overseas during their employment.(20) A 1994 study among Vancouver live-in caregivers said that such support makes up on average 33.4% of the caregiver’s gross earnings.(21)

Caregivers typically hope to become permanent residents and be reunited with their family, but it must always be remembered that such movement is not the freest choice, as the need to support family explains what “drives women from disadvantaged countries to migrate… [and] accept conditions that Canadian citizens would not.”(22)

Vulnerability and Abuse

It has been measured that among caregivers 18.5% report some form of abuse including “working outside of job description, low salaries, unpaid overtime, long hours, racial discrimination, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and ‘slave-like conditions.’”(23) The situation of caregivers is a women’s issue as well as an issue of class, race, and citizenship status.

The former live-in requirement meant that the employer’s immediate control over the caregiver’s food, space, sleep and social network made the caregiver vulnerable to intimidation and threat.(24) It also meant that the caregiver had little recourse to a clear boundary between their on-duty and off-duty time.(25) Even for live-out caregivers, the long hours and isolation on the job leads to vulnerability to abuse.(26) As a result, many caregivers report feelings of being “under surveillance and socially isolated.”(27)

Racist bullying by employers and their children has been reported by caregivers who are women of colour in Quebec and Canada along with bullying which denigrates the caregiver’s work or social class.(28) Abuse mainly goes unreported because the caregiver feels compelled to tolerate the situation until they can obtain their permanent residency application.(29) Many have been threatened openly by their employers with deportation or a call to immigration services.(30)

Some commentators have likened the LCP to a “modernized version of forced labour or servitude” because of the inaction or complicity of governments which allow these women to live under the “constant menaces of unemployment and deportation [which] suggest[s] a tacit denial of economic and social freedoms.”(31) Similar language has been used to characterize live in caregivers as a “captive workforce” put in “a situation of vulnerability” which erects barriers for the changing of employers.(32) Because of work permit restrictions, caregivers risk losing months of work between leaving an abusive employer and finding another placement, a situation which also puts their completion of the program at risk. There have been changes to the current caregiver program such as the removal of the formal live-in requirement. However, the vulnerability still remains because restrictive work permit controls keep caregivers subservient to their employers. Such vulnerability and abuse means that any serious vision for women’s equality in Canada will have to include equality for female migrant workers.


Caregiver programs are often the only opportunity that many migrant women have to work in Canada and provide for their families. Yet the structure of these programs engenders an employment context that makes caregivers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Audre Lorde’s warning about assumed homogeneity amongst women remains relevant. Approaches to gender equality that are uncomfortable engaging with difference in anything but the abstract tend to overlook situations of working-class, non-citizen, and racialized women like migrant caregivers. Doing so would require challenging capitalism, racism, imperialism and the assumption that all women have the same priorities or the same idea of what liberation and equality look like.

Fighting for women’s equality means going beyond advocating for greater representation of women as jurists, politicians or managers. Such a focus inevitably excludes the struggles of the majority of women who do not fall into these categories and ignores how women in the professional classes may also engage in exploitative and abusive practices towards the women who perform the very work necessary for their entry into such professions. In addition to demonstrating the great courage and tenacity of women navigating caregiver programs, the concrete situation of migrant caregivers acts as a litmus test for claims of solidarity among all women, an ideal which is currently more often preached than practiced.


(1) Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007) at 110-114.

(2) E Lee and M Johnstone, “Global Inequalities: A Gender-Based Analysis of the Live-in Caregiver Program and the Kirogi Phenomenon in Canada,” (2013) 28:4 Affilia 401 [Lee and Johnstone].

(3) “Caregiver programs” refer to the former “Live-in Caregiver Program” and similar programs that have existed in a number of forms throughout Canada’s history.

(4) Langevin, “Trafficking in Women in Canada: The Federal Live-in Caregiver Program,” (2007) 31:2 International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 191 [Langevin].

(5) The author volunteers with PINAY through Pro Bono Students Canada.

(6) Oxman-Martinez, Hanley, and Cheung, Another Look at the Live-in-Caregivers Program: An Analysis of an Action Research Survey Conducted by PINAY (Montreal: 2004) at 6 [PINAY].

(7) Abigail Bakan and Daiva Stasiulis, “Making the match: Domestic placement agencies and the racialization of Women’s household work.” (1995) 20 Journal of Women in Culture and Society at 309 [Bakan and Stasiulis].

(8) Lee and Johnstone, supra note 2 at 405.

(9) Bakan and Stasiulis, supra note 7 at 307.

(10) Ibid at 304.

(11) Lee and Johnstone, supra note 2 at 403.

(12) PINAY, supra note 6 at 11.

(13) Lee and Johnstone, supra note 2 at 410.

(14) It must be noted that there are male migrant caregivers although women make up the majority.

(15) Ibid at 408.

(16) Louise Louise Boivin, “Les femmes dans l’engrenage mondialisé de la concurrence, étude de cas sur les travailleuses des services d’aide à domicile au Québec” (Montréal : Conseil d’intervention pour l’accès des femmes au travail, 2007) at 39.

(17) Lee and Johnstone, supra note 2 at 404.

(18) Ibid at 404.

(19) “Remittances to Developing Countries to Stay Robust This Year, despite Increased Deportations of Migrant Workers, Says ” The World Bank: News. April 11, 2014. Accessed February 20, 2015. < news/press-release/2014/04/11/remittances-developing-countries-deportations- migrant-workers-wb>.

(20) Ibid at 20.

(21) Geraldine Pratt, “From Registered Nurse to Registered Nanny,” 232

(22) Langevin, supra note 4 at 197, 203.

(23) PINAY, supra note 6 at 16, 18.

(24) Hsiung and Nichol, “Policies on and Experiences of Foreign Domestic Workers in Canada,” 770 [Hsiung and Nichol].

(25) Ibid at 770.

(26) PINAY, supra note 6 at 21.

(27) Hsiung and Nichol, supra note 24.

(28) Groupe de travail québécois ad “Portrait des aides familiales au Québec,” (2009) at 31, 39.

(29) PINAY, supra note 6 at 13.

(30) Ibid at 14.

(31) Emilie Giroux-Gareau, “L’encadrement Juridique,” 44-45.

(32) Langevin, supra note 4 at 194.