Caregivers: The Forgotten Feminist Struggle

Nigah Awj

Thousands of women enter Canada every year with temporary, nominative employment visas to work in the homes of privileged families. A growing number of studies have raised concerns about the conditions foreign caregivers in Canada will face. While mainstream feminism concerns itself with aspirations of wealthy, white, Western women, these vulnerable women are forgotten. Caregivers’ work is undervalued and they suffer from their exclusion from labour and social protections other workers enjoy. Their work generates wealth for employers as it allows them to work outside the home. Our government facilitates exploitation instead of dealing concretely with the crisis of social services we are facing.1 Permitting, and even sanctioning, through legislation what is essentially modern servitude does not fix the problem of our skewed priorities and willingness to allow others to suffer for them.

The Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP)2 was established in 1992 as a federal initiative to help hire workers from foreign countries in order to fill the gap in domestic services aggravated by the inaccessibility to many Canadians of affordable and adequate services.3 These sectors are suffering from a lack of funding, and a lack of prestige. Being a housekeeper or a nanny is not a glamorous career, not the type aspired to by the majority of Canadians. The government has failed to recognize that foreign caregivers had been fulfilling these jobs long before the establishment of the program. It is they who permit others to live their “American Dream”. We cannot ignore the perpetual need in the Canadian economy for the type of work caregivers provide. The LCP now permitted caregivers to enter Canada with their employer’s nomination. The only hope they had then to gain permanent residence status in Canada was through their employer’s declaration of their hours and pay. They had to complete 24 months on a 48-month work permit in order to be eligible for permanent residency. All the power over caregivers’ lives was placed squarely in their employer’s hands. If caregivers changed employers or resigned, they would lose their chance at residency. Thus, the declarations could easily be leveraged abusively in the employer-employee relationship. Caregivers could not but accept whatever working conditions they faced. After efforts from the women it affected, the LCP was abolished in November 2014. However, instead of improving the situation through subsequent concrete legislation, the government left a void! There is no longer a specific program for foreign caregivers; they now fall under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).4 Under this program, it is much harder for caregivers to obtain permanent residency. Their uncertain immigration status makes it hard for caregivers to negotiate the terms and conditions of their lives.

Institutional racism dwells in these laws, since they target women of colour who are non-nationals.5 Among these are the migrant women from the Philippines. They are given very restrictive work permits that give a lot of power to their employers and reduce their lot to something akin to slavery. They suffer abuse, violence, and human rights violations in disproportionately high amounts due to the social construction of race in which they fall close to the bottom of the hierarchy.6 In her book, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945,7 Phyllis Palmer explains “whiteness” as the sense of racial superiority middle-class housewives felt when they hired others to do their “caring.” They were relieved of domestic labour and assured the time to attend to their social status. Domestic work is the work that makes all other work possible. For too long, feminist writers have not discussed the role of domestic workers in the revolutionary process and how it maintained class divisions among women. Racial oppression combined with class oppression created a distinct hierarchy among women in which one group can use their money and position to become educated and their free time to fight for “women’s rights,” but only at the expense of the others.

It is clear that caregivers do not enjoy the freedoms (supposedly gained in the name of all women) that their employers do; just as they did not when the early 20th century suffragettes were out marching. The world is in a situation where many people see fleeing their homelands as the best option. The second they arrive in a country like Canada, their role has already been decided, and so are our expectations of them. Current policies justify and perpetuate our distancing from them. “Migrant workers are other, migrant workers are less,” the policies shout each time we leave women in a position too vulnerable to negotiate for a better position in life. In this way, these women “continue to be historically constructed features of modern state ideology that is widely and inaccurately accepted as fact, rather than an ideological construct.”8

The international community has already recognized how vulnerable migrant domestic workers are. “A 2009 survey of 70 countries by the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that 40 percent did not guarantee domestic workers a weekly day of rest, and half did not impose a limit on normal hours of work for domestic workers. Without legal protection, domestic workers are at the mercy of their employers.”9 On June 2011, ILO members voted to adopt the ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which establishes the first global standard for domestic workers and entitles them to the same basic rights as those available to other workers in their country. The new standards oblige governments to protect domestic workers from violence and abuse by regulating private employment agencies that recruit and employ domestic workers, and to prevent child labour in domestic work. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, Canada has not ratified this convention. Instead of providing funding for child care and/or elderly care for Canadian families, or enforcing protection of caregivers’ labour rights, the Canadian government is complacent with the exploitation of cheap migrant labour. This hierarchy of supply and demand creates a “vicious circle of racism and resistance.”10 Canada’s LCP, and now TFWP, institutionalize and facilitate the exploitation of migrant domestic workers. It is clear that migrant workers are considered to be undesirables, and yet the demand for their services is high. Women and feminists must not be complicit in this matter. We cannot enjoy our rights, freedoms, and opportunities at the expense of others!

 

Notes
(1) Abigail Bakan & Daiva Stasiulis, Negotiating Citizenship: Migrant Women in Canada and the Global System (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).
(2) Government of Canada, “Live-in caregivers” (Last modified 5 December 2014), online: <www.cic.gc.ca>.
(3) Caregivers’ Association of Québec, “Issues and Problematics of Immigrant Caregivers”, online: <aafqweben.wordpress.com>.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Supra note 1.
(6) Nandita Sharma, “Immigrant and Migrant Workers in Canada: Labour Movements, Racism and the Expansion of Globalization” (2002) 21:4 Canadian Woman Studies 18.
(7) Phyllis Palmer, Domesticity And Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989).
(8) Abigail Bakan & Daiva Stasiulis, “Negotiating Citizenship: The Case of Foreign Domestic Workers in Canada” (1997) 57 Feminist Review 112.
(9) Human Rights Watch, “The ILO Domestic Workers Convention” (2013), online: <www.hrw.org>.
(10) Ellie Tesher, “Foreign Domestics Need Our Help”, Toronto Star (October 16 1996).

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