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October 24, 2002 Live-in workers law is just a start, panel says




by Louise Solomita

The gap between passing a law and enforcing was the issue dividing panelists in a discussion panel at Concordia’s School of Community and Public Affairs (SCPA) on March 18.

Five panelists represented various perspectives on the rights of domestic workers in light of Bill 143, a law recently passed to protect the rights of live-in caregivers, who look after children, seniors, or the disabled in the home. In recent years, much of this work force consists of Filipino women, who come to Canada in hopes of eventual citizenship.

“Starting from May 1, all home caregivers who live with their employees will be subject to the same standards as other workers,” said André Perrault, from the Commission des Normes du Travail (CNT). These standards will include a minimum-wage salary and the reduction of the standard work week from 49 hours to 40 hours. Perrault called these changes “a question of respect.”

Louise Dionne, a representative from the Association des Aides Familiales du Québec (AAFQ), pointed out that the reforms, Bill 143, while admirable in theory, would not guarantee change.

“Most live-in caregivers won’t see their rights respected as of May 1,” she said. “The CNT certainly won’t go door to door to make sure employers are adhering to the law.” Dionne compared the introduction of the labour reforms to climbing the first rung of a long ladder.

The Live-In Caregiver program is administered by Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) and Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). The program offers landed immigrant status after two years, provided candidates work full-time for 24 out of an allotted 36 months, and, in Quebec, that they pass a French language exam.

Mario Lozon, from HRDC, enumerated some of the rights to which live-in caregivers are entitled under the program. “Live-in caregivers have the right to take their own vacations, which are not the vacations of the employer, during which they’ll end up working for the family.” Employees are also entitled to a private bedroom and a key to the residence.

Michel Charron, from Immigration Quebec, conceded to certain shortcomings in the program, during which the workers must adapt to a new life, work full-time and learn French within a limited period of time. “Once [the live-in caregivers] get here, I’m not sure we necessarily have the resources to follow-up on their progress,” he said.

Cynthia Palmaria was from PINAY, an organization representing Philipino women in Quebec. She described what befalls some women once they begin their work in Quebec under the auspices of the program, such as the example of a woman who was fired because she was pregnant, making it difficult for her to complete the requisite 24 months of employment.

Palmaria has also heard about employers confiscating passports if the caregivers expressed a desire to leave; she said employers sometimes threaten to send the women “back where they came from” if they file any complaints about he way they are treated. Most women, she said, suffer in silence due to the precariousness of their status in the country.

“This is only a symbolic victory,” Palmaria said about the labour reforms. “While we have the definition of these rights on paper, the reality with the employers is different.”

During the question-and-answer session, the audience seemed to agree with Dionne and Palmaria that the Live-in Caregiver program is unfair.

Perrault said that live-in caregivers do not take advantage of the CNT’s mechanisms to receive and act upon complaints. However, members of the audience said it wasn’t always easy for the caregivers to gather their courage to do so, and that they sometimes had trouble expressing themselves in English or French.

Dionne and Palmaria said that the government should abolish the program altogether, and instead treat live-in caregivers as specialized workers, with landed immigrant status from the outset.

Charron from Immigration Quebec responded that many of these women desperately want to come to Canada, and that this program offers them that chance. “We’re aware that there are problems, and we’re looking for solutions.”

Marie-Aude Couillard Lapointe, a student of the SCPA and one of the organizers of the panel, was happy with the discussion. She was especially pleased that “the government representatives were open to discussion and challenges.”