Friday, May 08, 2009

Days of slave labour far from over

Toronto’s nanny controversy was first exposed by the Toronto Star when it reported last March 14, 2009, that caregivers from the Philippines were being lured to come to Canada for at least $5,000 per head for jobs which turned out to be bogus. One nanny recalled joining 16 other unemployed nannies in the cramped basement of a nanny recruiter’s house where they were detained and incarcerated without proper food. All 16 of them were harassed, scared and exploited to work for the recruiter under oppressive conditions. Their passports were kept by the recruiter obviously to prevent them from running away.

On Tuesday, May 5, 2009, Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla, a fast-rising member of the Federal Parliament and potential cabinet member if the Liberal Party regains power, found herself in the eye of the storm when two caregivers alleged they were illegally employed by Ms. Dhalla and then badly mistreated. In addition to seizing their passports, the Filipino nannies claimed that they were also forced to perform work outside their contract as caregivers such as cleaning the chiropractic clinic which belonged to the MP’s brother, cleaning the house of the MP’s mother, and shovelling snow until midnight.

This report of abuses against nannies by their recruiters and employers is a clear reminder to us that the days of indentured servitude or slavery, in short, are not yet over. That nannies from the Third World such as the Philippines are comparable to victims of human trafficking, a euphemism for slave trade, which Hillary Clinton called the “dark underbelly of globalization.”

In his book, A Crime so Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern Day Slaves, Benjamin Skinner wrote: “There are more slaves today than at any point in human history.” Skinner estimated that there are currently 27 million worldwide, 143 years after the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1865, and 60 years after the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights banned slavery worldwide.

After four years of researching for his book while posing as a buyer at illegal brothels on several continents, Skinner concluded that slavery in its many forms – debt bondage, forced domestic servitude and forced prostitution – still exists and is shocking, mostly because it is invisible to those of us who don’t know where to look for it.

What the Filipino nannies went through in Toronto is just part of the current North-South system of exploitation. The South’s (the Third World) role is essentially to supply cheap labour that perpetuates servitude, defying the official rhetoric that although decent work is an important element in achieving reduction in poverty, everything remains the same.

And sometimes, there is a danger in the myopic vision of some advocates of caregiver reforms that punishing illegal recruiters or forcing a politician to step down after being exposed as an abusive employer is enough, or it is at the very least an important part of the public relations offensive to shame a government that is insensitive to the working conditions of caregivers.

Let’s consider the recent efforts of some advocates of caregiver reforms in the Filipino community in Toronto.

After the Toronto Star exposé of the bogus operations of nanny recruiters, caregiver advocates demanded that recruitment agencies be licensed and regulated by the provincial government. A new bill in the Ontario provincial parliament is on its way to becoming a law that will require registration of nanny employment or recruitment agencies and prohibit them from charging fees from prospective nannies. Lawyers and immigration consultants who are in the immigration business are not subject to this new law because they are governed under a different regulatory framework. So nanny recruitment agencies can simply pass on their invoices for fees to their lawyers or immigration consultants, who in turn will pay the agencies for their share of the cost of doing work for documenting nanny applications.

Forcing MP Ruby Dhalla to resign is not going to help Filipino nannies in achieving the reforms they want. “Gotcha” doesn’t work in Canada, especially against a member of Parliament. Ms. Dhalla has already resigned from her post as party critic for youth and multiculturalism affairs and has asked the federal ethics commissioner to review the allegations of abuse and illegal behaviour against her, steps that are aimed at cooling down the controversy. Besides, “we don’t hang people on the floor of the House of Commons,” as Bob Rae, another Liberal MP said.

The obvious call to arms by one Filipino community organization to fan the flames of public outcry against MP Ruby Dhalla is an example of a small-minded perspective of the issues that really confront Filipino caregivers. If Filipinos are really hell-bent in ousting Ms. Dhalla from the federal Parliament, they can do so by campaigning against her during the elections in her riding in Brampton.

At least three advocacy groups are on target concerning the most important of the caregiver issues. These are the Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ), the Caregivers Support Services, and the recently-formed Grassroots Hub (G-Hub), a network of independent community and migrant workers, organizations and individuals informally linked though the initiative of the Filipino Catholic Missions of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

All three advocacy organizations are demanding that the federal government grant permanent residence status to caregivers upon their arrival in Canada. The core of their argument is that nannies become vulnerable to abuse by recruitment agencies and employers because of their temporary status. Nannies have no other choice but to go along with the wishes of their agencies or employers and bear their suffering in silence because their temporary residence is a clear path for them to gain permanent resident status after completing two years of caregiver work during their first three years in Canada.

But this rationale stands on infirm legs. Caregivers are determined on a set of criteria lower than those required of permanent resident applicants. If they are to be processed against the criteria for permanent residents, they obviously will not qualify. To land them permanently upon arrival will be discriminatory to permanent resident applicants.

A possible compromise is to give caregivers permanent residence status under the following conditions: (1) they must stay with their employers and will be allowed to change employers only on reasonable cause; (2) they will have the option to live-in with their employers or stay live-out, and employers’ approval is not necessary; (3) they will not be able to sponsor their family members (spouses and children) unless they have completed two years of their work contract; (4) all incoming caregivers will be required to register with a provincial office who will be responsible in monitoring their contract and working conditions; and (5) they will be allowed to continue their studies to upgrade their skills during their free time.

But under the present Conservative government, the likelihood is that the Live-in Caregiver Program might be scrapped and applicants for caregivers will be lumped together with temporary and seasonal workers. Between this possible scenario and the present program, caregivers are better off where they are now. It is also conceivable that the Conservative or even a Liberal government may increase child-care subsidies to parents to do away with hiring of live-in caregivers for their pre-school children.

Poverty is the very reason why many Filipino women are forced or even hoodwinked into accepting caregiver jobs, or into becoming modern-day slaves. It is the primary driver of slavery today, and unscrupulous agencies have taken advantage of this situation. As long as there’s a ready source of people who are so desperate for survival, and if we don’t address that, there will always be slavery.

Filipino nannies in Toronto are not alone in their suffering and struggle. In Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, John Bowe provides a guide to the contemporary American scourge of labour abuse and outright slavery. Bowe visited locations in Florida, Oklahoma, and the U.S.-owned Pacific island of Saipan, where slavery cases have been brought to light as recently as 2006.

Instead of chains, Bowe found that modern slavery uses coercion in the form of threats of deportation, beatings, harm to families back home or even death. Bowe focuses on three cases: a labour contractor named El Diablo who held Mexican illegals in involuntary servitude, working in Florida orange groves, barely paid, kept in decrepit conditions and intimidated, violently, to keep quiet about it; a Tulsa, Oklahoma-man, owner of a steel-cutting plant, who contracted with an Indian-born American to recruit Indian labourers, who were overworked, underpaid, housed in squalor, and threatened with deportation if they resisted; and the U.S. commonwealth of Saipan, which recruits foreign workers, who are abused and exploited while working in sweatshops for U.S. clothing manufacturers.

About a month ago, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published a report on how Filipino women who seek employment overseas keep on getting victimized by illegal recruiters. They ended up working in a far-away land, cut off from their family, and worse, were physically abused, sometimes molested, and not even paid a cent of their wages.

It told of the story of Alice who was offered a job by an illegal recruiter who promised her a good employer, a higher salary and quick deployment to Dubai, of which she has heard good things about. When she arrived in Dubai, her first employer attempted to sexually molest her. After complaining to her agency, she was transferred to another household. Her new employer included a lecherous grandfather who kept trying to open her bedroom door at two o’clock in the morning. She learned to sleep with a knife tucked under her pillow and her bed against the door. Fearing for her life, she called the Philippine embassy for help, but before the embassy could respond, Alice was asked to pack up and leave.

Little did Alice know that the next turn of events would even be worse. Her employment agency sold her contract and passport to another agency in Oman where she found out that she had to work as a prostitute. Not willing to become a prostitute, her foreign agent sold her to another agent in Damascus, Syria. Without a visa, Alice was held in Damascus and thrown to a detention cell where her one-night stay would linger forever for the rest of her life. Eventually, she was released and found work as a domestic helper for a couple with six children. She worked from morning till late in the night doing many tasks: from cutting tree branches to cleaning the entire house and feeding the children.

Eventually, the Philippine embassy in Lebanon negotiated for the repatriation of Alice and 16 other Filipino women working under oppressive conditions in Syria.

The above accounts are not meant to downplay the experiences of our nannies in Toronto but to illustrate what slavery has become today. Modern slaves are no longer boarded on ships that cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But they are still regarded as commodities that can be sold by their foreign agents, and governments and other institutions that support slavery work behind a veil of denial and subterfuge. Like the nannies in Toronto who are forced to work as caregivers hoping it is a path planted with roses towards Canadian citizenship.

Anywhere there is poverty and desperation, there will be agents who’ll negotiate, lure and entrap their victims into slavery. The world market still runs on the profit principle and the trade in human lives and labour—as it has for centuries before—remains lucrative and viable.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As always, you've provided a balanced commentary on another 'hot' issue. It's hard to find.

Thanks for this and I hope to see you and Patty at Kapisanan at some point this summer.

- Len Cervantes