The Live-In Caregiver Program: Inequality Under Canada’s Immigration System

The Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) is a specialized program of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, which admits participants to Canada as temporary workers for up to three years. In exchange for completing 24 months of care giving work for children, the elderly, or the disabled in a private household within three years of arriving in Canada, LCP participants are eligible to apply for permanent residence. Pursuant to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act Regulations, participants must live in their employers’ homes and are only allowed to work for the one employer named on their work permit. Working for another employer or living outside of their employer’s home can result in a participant’s removal from Canada. Participants can change employers, but only after receiving a new work permit through a lengthy bureaucratic process, which can take several months. See http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/pub/caregiver/index.html for details on the LCP.

While participants benefit from the opportunity to obtain permanent residence, the LCP fails to safeguard live-in caregivers from unfair and discriminatory treatment. A large majority of participants are women of colour. The onerous conditions of the LCP – temporary status, mandatory live-in requirement, employer-specific work permit, and 24-month requirement – violate the fundamental rights of women and create vulnerability to economic, physical, sexual and psychological abuse. In fear of deportation, not being able to qualify for permanent residence, and of losing their home and income, caregivers are reluctant to change employers or lodge a complaint and often endure unbearable working and living conditions. Women under the LCP are often underpaid, work excessive hours, experience violations of privacy, and receive inadequate food and accommodation. Caregivers may also experience social isolation, family separation and lack of awareness of their employment rights.

The unfair treatment and inequality inherent in the LCP is based on gender, race and class. The federal government’s rationale for the LCP is that there is a shortage of Canadians or permanent residents to fill the need for live-in care work. Arguably, the poor working conditions, low pay, and stigma attached to domestic work helps to perpetuate this labour shortage. In addition, Canada’s immigration selection criteria (the “point system” for independent immigrants) emphasize higher education and labour market participation in male-dominated occupations and fail to recognize the economic disadvantage of women and the value of domestic work. Further, caregivers historically entered Canada with permanent resident status. When one examines the various caregiver immigration schemes over the past century, it becomes apparent that caregivers’ legal status and rights in Canada began to deteriorate as caregivers’ place of origin changed from Britain and other European countries to the Caribbean and the Philippines.

In an effort to ameliorate the unfair treatment of caregivers, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act Regulations introduced the requirement of an employment contract for caregivers and their employers. The government’s intent was to provide the fairest working arrangement for both parties and to create a clear understanding of expectations. However, an employment contract alone is insufficient to prevent exploitation of caregivers or to ensure clear avenues of assistance for caregivers. A contract’s effectiveness requires an ability to negotiate contractual terms and strong enforcement mechanisms, both of which are lacking for live-in caregivers. There is a large power imbalance in the employer-employee relationship due to the restrictive conditions of the LCP, making fair negotiation a practical impossibility. Further, the federal government, despite having introduced the contract requirement, takes no responsibility for intervention or enforcement because the regulation of working conditions falls within the purview of provincial governments. Most provinces provide a complaint-driven enforcement model which, coupled with cutbacks to provincial employment standards, makes it especially difficult for live-in caregivers to access justice.

Community groups have long called for changes to the LCP to lessen these inequities, including granting caregivers permanent residence on arrival, abolishing the live-in requirement, providing caregivers with occupation-specific and not employer-specific work permits, decreasing the work requirement to one year, and a pro-active monitoring system of employers and employment conditions.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recently heard these calls. In its draft report following its review of Canada’s 5th report on compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (online at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/28sess.htm), the Committee singled out the LCP, expressing its concern with caregivers’ temporary status and the live-in requirement, and stating:

“The Committee urges the State party to take further measures to improve the current live-in caregiver programme by reconsidering the live-in requirement, ensuring adequate social security protection and accelerating the process by which such domestic workers may receive permanent residency (paragraph 42).”

It is clear that the LCP, in its current form, is flawed and inequitable. Canada’s immigration evaluation system requires modification to recognize the value of domestic work, the significant and unique contributions LCP participants make to Canadian society, and the human dignity of women.

For more information, please the West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association email at wcdwa@vcn.bc.ca.

Tami Friesen is a former Advocate and current Policy Developer at the West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association. West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association is a non-governmental organization in Vancouver, which has been providing outreach, education and legal assistance to live-in caregivers for over 15 years.Live-in Caregiver Program, Immigration and Refugee Protection Act Regulations, West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association