NOTEBOOK: The caregivers issue: Barking at the wrong tree

Community Opinion & Analysis Apr 2, 2009 at 11:46 am

The recent Toronto Star series of articles about unscrupulous recruiting agencies preying on Filipino caregivers has triggered a public outcry that sent politicians and public officials singing a chorus on protecting these vulnerable foreign workers and vowing to go after these greedy recruiters.

A private member’s bill has been filed in the Ontario Parliament that intends to curb this practice by setting up a registry of agencies, banning the charging of fees on caregivers and penalizing those in violation of this bill.

Hearing the stories of the caregivers on how they were milked thousands of dollars for often non-existent jobs has provoked public anger. Those responsible deserve to be charged with fraud and brought to justice. Victimizing foreign workers who have already spent a fortune for government fees and who are willing to be separated from their families just so they could support their siblings, parents and spouses, is like sucking the blood of these poor people. There’s no doubt about it, these predators need to be exposed and made to answer for their crimes.

But I am a bit uncomfortable with how this is turning out to be. These unscrupulous recruiters need to be punished for sure but to me they are like vultures feeding on the miseries of the caregivers. They bring the caregivers here for a scandalous fee, which is absolutely wrong. But what we forget is the already unjust and outrageous terms and conditions under which caregivers and all foreign temporary workers find themselves in are what allow the unscrupulous recuiters to extract their huge fees.

These caregivers and other temporary workers come from poor and lower middle class families in poor countries like the Philippines. They couldn’t find decent jobs there because of both the unwillingness and inability of the government leadership to provide decent employment. As the country reels from crisis after crisis amid everyday reports of scandals and mind-boggling corruption in high places, people lose hope and in desperation go overseas where life looks better.

The government of the sending country is interested mainly or solely in the billions of dollars these overseas workers remit home, in the case of the Philipppines, about U.S.$18 billion a year. These desperate people are pushed to work overseas as cheap labor without the necessary protection. In Canada, for instance, caregivers under the Live-in Caregiver Program are like indentured slaves tied to their employers who know that they are desperate to escape from poverty in their home country and many wouldn’t mind being exploited working 12 hours or more without overtime pay doing chores not specified in their contracts. Besides, the carrot at the end of the 36 months, after they have worked live-in for 24 months – eligibility to apply for permanent residence status – is too attractive to resist.
That is not available in most other countries.

The stories of abusive working conditions, physical, verbal and sexual abuse, cheating on salaries and tax deductions are too common to be ignored. That’s why, it’s revolting when some consular staff used to say that these are nothing compared to what OFWs experience in the Middle East. That may be true but it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.

So you have desperate poor people who would grab the first chance of working abroad and would accept any terms of employment rather than have their family go hungry.

The receiving country, Canada, knows these are desperate people so it imposes working conditions it wouldn’t normally impose on its citizens and immigrants who have rights and privileges that couldn’t be taken away easily. These caregivers are treated like second-class workers and in practice indentured slaves who are “willing” anyway to bear their miserable conditions since their life here is much better than where they came from. Besides, again, there is that light at the end of the dark tunnel, permanent residency and being able to sponsor their family, which is becoming illusory now, judging by the numerous cases of deportation or “removal”.

Now comes the public outcry to crucify the unscrupulous recruiters who are like vultures feeding on the miseries of the desperate caregivers. Those who caused these miseries in the first place escape the blame and join the chorus to go after the heads of the vultures.

To me, it’s like the classic comparison to rounding up some drug pushers on the streets while letting the drug lords and their protectors in law enforcement do business.

So what is the solution to this seemingly complex problem? Since the root of the problem is the unjust impositions on the caregivers, then remove these chains that tie them to modern slavery. Let them come to Canada with permanent resident status so there is no carrot that is dangled to them as a prize for accepting slavery. Remove the live-in requirement so they are not treated like they are owned by their employers who can make them work on demand 24 hours a day. Let their workplace, their employers’ home, be subject to labor standards and their work conditions and wages be like those of Canadian workers. Not only treat them like ordinary Canadian workers are treated. Treat them like human beings with dignity who deserve respect. After all, they make life comfortable to countless families who have kids, elderly and ill persons in Canada.

The Philippine government should stop sending them as desperate cheap labor bound by onerous work conditons but as workers with rights and benefits accorded to regular workers in modern society and who while still Filipino citizens should be fully protected by their government wherever they are in the world. If and when this happens, no recruiting business will be able to extract blood from caregivers with impunity.