Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Labour migration – the great debate

Listening to arguments for and against labour migration can be very confusing, leaving you torn between two extremes, i.e., (a) to support the decisions made by people to migrate and work overseas, or (b) to condemn your government’s failure to provide a sustainable economy where jobs are for the picking. Forget the possibility of a compromise in the meantime, this is what one gets from the current debate. Either you’re for or against it.

Let’s examine this great divide in the context of Canada’s current Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP).

In a speech before a business group last November 2008, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo claimed that more jobs are waiting for Filipino migrant workers. No wonder that Arroyo calls them the Philippines “greatest export.” Among others, she stated that there will be a demand for 30,000 overseas foreign workers in Canada. Arroyo must be talking about the demand for live-in caregivers, mostly nannies who take care of pre-school children of affluent families in Canada.

A statement like this coming from the Philippine president is what drives those against labour migration even more cynical of Arroyo’s administration, accusing her of selling Filipinos overseas to save the economy at home. Forced migration of people, according to these naysayers, is not a sign of development, but rather a manifestation of the government’s inability to provide proper jobs and decent living for their people. And it is forcing people to be modern-day slaves.

Siklab-BC, a national advocacy group for overseas Filipino workers in Canada, wants to have the federal LCP scrapped. Its chairperson argues that the program is a trap for many women workers. Because of the “exploitative and restrictive policies of the program,” says Siklab, “most workers end up without status in Canada and are deported.”

Canada’s LCP is unique from temporary worker programs in other countries. It offers caregivers the opportunity to apply for permanent resident status after completing two years of work in the three years after arriving in Canada. But because of the requirement that caregivers live in with their employers, this has been criticized as unrealistic and unreasonable since the employer’s economic circumstances may change, or the parties may not get along, or there could be abuses or violations of the employment contract. When any of these circumstances happens, it becomes difficult for caregivers to look for another job and start the process again. In many instances, caregivers lose their temporary work status and are ordered to be deported.

Others find this requirement to perform full-time live-in domestic work as a form of “indentured servitude.”

Take the case of Maria who was hired as a live-in caregiver for an elderly person who needed around the clock supervision. She worked 22 out of 24 hours daily preparing meals, attending to housework duties and blood sugar-level testing, leaving her only a two-hour break to take care of her own personal needs. She slept in her employer’s bedroom because the latter wanted to be able to ask for Maria’s assistance any time during the night, although the LCP requires that the live-in caregiver have her own room with a lock on the door. Countless women like Maria but who cared for little children were also asked to sleep in the room of the children so that their parents would not be disturbed in the middle of the night to soothe a crying baby or take the child to the bathroom. Worse, in Maria’s case and the others, they were not paid overtime for the hours they rendered beyond 8 hours per day and 40 hours per week.

Maria’s experience is not unique but highlights the exploitation and oppression live-in caregivers suffer daily, according to LCP detractors. It underscores the context of the modern-day slavery of caregivers in Canada.

Critics of Canada’s LCP also cite instances where highly educated Filipino women who, in order to enter the program, have to devalue their educational and work qualifications, and as a result these women suffer from emotional strain and low-self esteem, not to mention their consequent de-skilling and deprofessionalization. Spending two years or more in jobs beneath their qualifications could cause negative consequences later when they attempt to enter and qualify for their actual professions.

The live-in requirement has also been criticized for causing strains on the families of caregivers because of lengthy separation from families, which in some cases have led to family breakdowns or emotional difficulties in reunification.

Advocates for Filipino migrants demand that instead of promoting migrant labour, the Philippine government should create jobs by developing sustainable strategies at home. They argue that what the Philippines needs is “a sound domestic economic base that will provide genuine development for the country and jobs for its people.” Instead of scavenging job opportunities abroad, they urge the government to “assure full employment through industrialization that in turn would build up a whole new set of fiscal, monetary, trade, industrial and other policies.”

But what if the government fails to do exactly what these advocates for migrant workers demand?

A Filipino caregiver in Toronto said that there’s no need to scrap Canada’s LCP. To her, the LCP is the only temporary workers’ program that allows workers to apply for permanent residency, unlike the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program where one can never become a permanent resident. She thinks scrapping the LCP will put caregivers in a similarly vulnerable situation or worse.

Responding to Siklab-BC and other disbelievers of the LCP, she said that “not everyone coming as caregivers are nurses and engineers or ‘professionals.’” By scrapping the LCP, she believes that “there is no other way for people who do not have high education or who are not professionals to come to Canada.”

She further explains: “For Filipinos like me, coming from a poor country that has no jobs, Filipinos will try to leave one way or another. There are 3,000 Filipinos leaving the country everyday to work in 198 countries around the world. Many of these countries have worse labour rights and human rights conditions but they still go. Meanwhile, now that they have a chance to come to Canada as caregivers with a chance to stay permanently, why would they want to scrap the program?”

A Montreal-based Filipino caregiver prefers that changes be made rather than scrap the LCP entirely. Simply allow caregivers to work live-out, she said, or make it optional to work live-in. This way, caregiving would be regarded as a normal job and not as susceptible to exploitation and abuse.

She is not even concerned about family breakdown. According to her, “it [family breakdown] is also happening even to those who are not going abroad. Filipinos will still find their way to go abroad even not in Canada. Even in Hongkong, Singapore, Taiwan, the Middle East, etc., many Filipinos suffer exploitation. Let us accept that that it is more difficult for us who are not rich to just stay in the Philippines. Unemployment, underemployment, low salary that cannot support your family, these are our problems. We chose to go abroad to give our family a chance to have a better life. It is not the LCP or our going abroad that destroys some of us. Broken families, drug addiction, etc. ... the root cause is poverty, difficult life, the system in our country. Our government is the problem. Actually, LCP is one way to help fellow Filipinos to go out of the country.”

Because of shortage of jobs and low wage rates in poor countries, particularly in the Philippines, Canada’s LCP has attracted many Filipino women, especially those with only two years of college education, a smattering of English and home-grown child rearing skills. Add the incentive of earning the opportunity to become a permanent resident or eventually a Canadian citizen, the LCP has become a floodgate when alternative means of acquiring permanent residency in other rich countries such as the United States has become more and more increasingly difficult for low-skilled workers.

Low-skilled and less educated workers, without family connections in Canada and no genuine basis to claim refugee status, would not qualify as skilled workers or protected persons, or under the business category. As a result, a temporary worker program like the LCP may be the most feasible way for low-skilled workers to get permanent resident status in Canada.

Canada’s response to its child-care problem by installing the LCP is more than a neutral response because, as a matter of legislation and policy, the LCP actually promotes the separation of families, exploits immigrants, and legitimizes some negative gendered norms, while having very little effect on international poverty and instability issues.

Just because many participate in the LCP does not mean it must be the best option available. Arguably, the attraction of higher wages and permanent resident status outweighs the nature and environment of the work that a caregiver finds herself in, and the separation from home and her family. But this is not enough justification. The issue is not what are the various injustices and hard choices faced by LCP participants, but whether the program is a legitimate, effective, and normatively desirable government action.

If Canada must draw guidance from its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in particular, the Section 7 right to life, liberty and security of the person, and the various human rights codes of its provinces, by perpetuating the notion that exploiting cheap foreign labour is acceptable, then the government can be faulted for eroding the moral foundation of its society.

The LCP has a very negative effect, too, of perpetuating the international image of the Filipino woman as a domestic servant. It is a niche the Philippines has made in the global economy, in part because the government itself has chosen to be the primary purveyor. The Philippine government has reaffirmed the ideal of the low-cost, low-skill, submissive female caregiver. By exporting cheap labour and relying on caregiver remittances, the Philippines can only go so far in addressing problems of poverty and instability for these funds are by and large spent on consumption rather than investment.

Achieving a balance between a caregiver program that appeals to employers and one that is fair to caregivers seems the only way to open up borders by providing incentives for Canadians and helping migrants from poor countries escape poverty. But in the end, as one writer puts it:

“Most human beings do not love to move. They normally feel attached to their native land and to the particular language, culture, and community in which they grew up and in which they feel at home. They seek to move only when life is very difficult where they are.”

And as the swelling ranks of migrant workers show, the disenchantment over a home government that does nothing to curb poverty and the futility of finding hope in their own homeland drive many more to seek that opportunity elsewhere.

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