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Foreign caregivers at risk of exploitation




Shannon Proudfoot


Legislation needed to ensure both seniors and immigrants who care for them are treated well, study says.

Newspaper title

Ottawa Citizen

Full text

Demand for foreigners to work as live-in caregivers for seniors in Canada is growing, but while some see the program as a potential answer to the needs of a rapidly aging society, others say it's rife with problems and inherently exploitative.

Canada's Live-In Caregiver Program admits temporary foreign workers to care for children, seniors or people with disabilities, ultimately opening the door to permanent residency.

"It's becoming busier all the time because it is a very viable alternative for seniors. They can stay in their own home, they don't have to go into a facility and it's less expensive," said Robin Smith, owner of Pacific Live-In Caregivers, a placement agency in Ladysmith, B.C.

The number of caregivers admitted to Canada has climbed steadily over the last decade, from 2,685 in 2000 to 12,885 in 2008. There's been a slight dip in recent years due to changes in the program and more scrutiny of job offers, but the most up-to-date information suggests the program was on track to bring approximately 10,000 people to Canada last year.

A new study examining the program concludes that it holds "clear potential" for serving Canada's aging population -but only if it gets an overhaul.

Workers leave their own families behind to work in Canada and may face excessive work hours, dismal living conditions or unreasonable expectations from their clients and families, the paper finds, and it can be difficult to switch jobs or get help if they're in a bad situation.

Ivy Bourgeault, Canadian Institutes of Health Research chair in health human resource policy at the University of Ottawa and co-author of the study, says live-in caregivers of the elderly face issues those caring for children do not.

They may be left alone with their charge for extended periods while families are on vacation, she says, and working with adults is generally more physically and emotionally taxing.

"It's undervalued in terms of remuneration. We often refer to it as 'unskilled work,' and believe me, you need a heck of a lot of skill," Bourgeault says. "It's very difficult to recruit for Canadian workers, who all want to have really good jobs. It's a quid pro quo: They come in, they do the jobs that people don't want and they get access to Canadian citizenship out of that, and that's what they buy into."

Live-in caregivers must apply and come to Canada alone, but after two years of work, they can apply for permanent residency and sponsor their children and spouses to join them.

Citizenship and Immigration data doesn't differentiate between caregivers for children, seniors or people with disabilities, but the consensus among experts is that more and more live-in caregivers are coming to Canada to care for older adults. The vast majority of Canada's live-in caregivers are women, and people from the Philippines accounted for at least two-thirds of the program over the last decade.

The government says more than 90 per cent of those who enter Canada as live-in caregivers apply for permanent residency and 98 per cent are successful.

Foreign workers are necessary for this program because some families need live-in help and most Canadians or landed immigrants aren't willing to sign on for that, says Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney.

In April 2010, the government introduced reforms, giving caregivers more time to fulfil the work requirements to apply for permanent residency and moving the responsibility for paying recruitment fees, medical insurance and half the cost of a caregiver's travel to employer families.

Many unscrupulous agencies closed their doors after the reforms came into effect because they could no longer charge exorbitant fees to both caregivers and families, says Marna Martin, president of Trafalgar Personnel, a placement agency in Oakville, Ont. Some were listing non-existent jobs with fake employer contacts, charging caregivers fees to bring them to Canada and then leaving them "devastated" with no job or place to live when they arrived, she says.

"There was all kinds of abuse. New legislation is much needed and very much opposed by most of the agencies," says Martin.

Economic sectors

Occupations in services - Domestic work

Content types

Policy analysis

Target groups

Public awareness

Geographical focuses

Canada, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, British Columbia, Other provinces, Federal, Philippines, Nova Scotia, and National relevance