Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Caregiver dilemma a labour issue

A Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is expected to be passed by the New York State Legislature and signed into law by Governor Alexander Paterson soon. The first of its kind in the United States, the proposed bill would amend New York state labour law and guarantee the over-200,000 nannies and housekeepers in New York a living wage, overtime pay, sick leave, severance and health benefits, and protection from employment discrimination.

Here is a sensible piece of legislation that Filipino nannies in Toronto can use as a model in their struggle to be treated like real workers. Right now, the utmost concern of Filipino nannies is to achieve immediate landing status as soon as they arrive in Canada to work as live-in caregivers. But that may be a short-sighted solution because permanent status is not a magical wand that will remove all the vestiges of slave labour, including abuses and exploitation that characterize the nature of work that nannies do.

Even as temporary workers, nannies and caregivers should also fall within the ambit of labour protections and basic employment standards. While their conditions of stay in Canada are subject to the federal immigration act, the Ontario government, however, must ensure that their working conditions meet provincial employment standards and that they are also protected under provincial laws. The government doesn’t need to wait for them to be given permanent status before they are covered by labour protections and employment standards. That’s why a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights makes sense.

Many nannies and caregivers, after gaining permanent status in Canada, have continued to stay on with their jobs. Not many have transitioned to new careers or to jobs for which their college education prepared them for. Because they have families and even relatives to support back home, many are unable to upgrade their skills in order to move up to better-paying jobs since this also entails money. And waiting for the better opportunity to come by is not always that easy. Given their circumstances, patience is oftentimes also a very trying task. Thus, those who have found reasonable employers who treat them fairly well would stay on with their jobs or transfer to similarly good employers performing the same menial tasks as a nanny or a caregiver. With good employers, most Filipino nannies don’t complain of doing the lowly tasks as caregivers even after they have become permanent residents or citizens.

What they don’t realize is they are still outside the protection of labour laws and standards no matter how humane their employers treat them. They may no longer stay and live with their employers, but that doesn’t change the very nature of their work. Working in private homes as housekeepers, nannies and caregivers for the elderly, these domestic workers remain isolated and unprotected because in these workplaces fundamental labour standards and protections do not apply, not even in theory.

Domestic workers are “an invisible segment of society,” according to Assemblyman Keith Wright (D-Harlem), the sponsor of the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

While they spend much of their lives taking care of others, domestic workers are the most exploited of society’s army of labourers. Every day, 200,000 domestic workers in New York make it possible for their employers to go to work. Yet, most are employed without a living wage, health care and basic labour protections. It was a deeply personal issue for Assemblyman Wright because his grandparents were both domestic workers.

New York’s horde of domestic workers has the same litany of complaints as their counterparts in Toronto. Working in their employers’ homes makes domestic workers uniquely vulnerable to abuse. They routinely endure verbal abuse, dehumanizing treatment, and exploitation. In some cases, they are physically abused or sexually assaulted, forced to sleep in quarters unfit of human habitation, and stripped of their privacy and dignity. The epidemic of workplace abuse is common to all domestic workers everywhere, whether in New York or Toronto.

Although majority of domestic workers are immigrants, their labour situation is not an immigration issue. Whether they came from the Philippines, Trinidad, the Bahamas, or from countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America, the same conditions of labour exploitation exist.

One of the aims of New York’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is to put an end to the historical exclusion of domestic workers from state labour protections, which in all probability have motivated employers to subject them to abuse and exploitation. The Bill of Rights for domestic workers lays out a comprehensive set of rights based on the unique conditions workers in private homes face. Aside from enjoying for the first time the benefit of labour standards and protections, it will also compel employers to treat nannies and caregivers not as servants, but as what they are: real workers.

Nothing has been heard of the proposed Ontario legislation to regulate employment agencies after the wake of the Ruby Dhalla “nannygate” scandal. Perhaps, the private bill initiative fell short of a genuine and most effective solution to Toronto’s caregiver crisis. Or maybe, the members of the Ontario legislature are conflicted about their role in this caregiver problem, thinking that the issue is primarily an immigration matter and should therefore fall in the hands of their federal counterpart.

Even among advocates of caregiver reforms, there is a contradiction of purpose. One group would like to scrap the Live-In Caregiver Program and end indentured servitude once and for all. Another group prefers to continue the program but give nannies and caregivers outright permanent resident status to prevent abuse and exploitation.

One can understand the scrapping of the Live-in Caregiver Program because it only accentuates the slave-nature of the work of a caregiver and perpetuates the notion that the Philippines is a compliant source of modern-day slaves for affluent families in the West.

On the other hand, those who wish to come to Canada for better employment opportunities and prospects of a good life find the Live-in Caregiver Program an easy gateway to permanent residence and citizenship, which Filipino nannies in Hongkong, Singapore and the Middle East can never hope for.

But the caregiver crisis in Toronto and in all of Canada is first and foremost a labour problem. Approaching it from the very narrow standpoint of immigration alone will not bring about an effective solution. The rights of our domestic workers should not be treated like a ball which one legislature can bounce to another. Our representatives in parliament, whether federal or provincial, should at least accept that nannies and caregivers also deserve fundamental labour rights and protections and begin to evolve genuine legislation that recognizes the important role of these invisible workers in our economy.

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