Nannies and home caregivers toiling 12 to 14 hours a day, through weekends and holidays. Doing extra cleaning, disinfecting and child care, even though their overtime is unpaid. Trapped in their employers' homes because they are no longer allowed to go outside on their own.
The arrival of COVID-19 in Canada has turned the conditions of migrant care labour into virtual prisons, according to a report released Wednesday that details the toll borne by a work force segment made up mostly of women from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Kenya or Jamaica.
Migrant workers have always been exploited, and the document illustrates how the pandemic anxieties of their employers have aggravated that problem, increasing their workload, barring them from riding public transit or going to the bank to send remittances to relatives overseas.
“The racism underpinning this denial of freedom is clear: even as employers went in and out, workers – primarily South-East Asian, as well as Caribbean, African and South Asian women – were treated as vectors of disease,” the report said.
The report was jointly prepared by four support organizations calling themselves the Landed Status Now Working Group of Migrant Rights Network.
“We are humans too. We are not robots,” said Karen Savitra, a care worker from the Philippines who was among three who agreed to share their experience during a video conference set up by the report’s authors.
“Sometime we feel like we finish our freedom,” said Harpeet Kaur, a caregiver from India.
The report is based on a survey of 201 migrant care workers, conducted over the past two months. Most respondents worked in Ontario or British Columbia.
More than a third lost their jobs. Nearly half had to work longer hours. Among those who still worked, 40 per cent said they were not paid for their overtime.
The report estimates that over the last six months those workers were owed an average of $6,552 in unpaid overtime. “One worker reported working 14 hours a day, taking care of three children and being responsible for all household chores seven days a week for four months without a break,” the paper said.
The report explains that migrant care workers, who hope to gain permanent residency and be reunited with their families, are often in a vulnerable spot because restrictions on their 24-month work permits tie them to one employer only, putting them at risk of abuse.
Ms. Kaur said her first job in Canada was with an Edmonton family that kept her locked up “as if I am going to run away.” When she asked for her back pay, they expelled her during the night, and she ended up in a park at 1 a.m.
The pandemic lockdown has now made working conditions even more arduous and claustrophobic because employers and their children are home, expecting more from their housekeepers and nannies, the report said.
While most are live-in employees, many rent shared apartments where they live on the weekends. More than a third of the survey’s respondents said they were no longer permitted to leave their employer’s house to buy groceries, go to the bank or visit doctors.
Ms. Kaur said employers sometimes agree to let caregivers go outside if they wear masks, but more often, those requests are turned down. One of her friends was fired after going for a walk. “Themselves, they go anywhere. But if care workers are asking to go somewhere, they aren’t allowed.”
Ms. Savitra said her employers, fearing the pandemic, sold their house in the Toronto area and relocated to the Muskoka area, to a house that had no room or bathroom for her. Fearing she would be even more isolated, she quit.
She and others also face bureaucratic hurdles exacerbated by the pandemic. They say that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the department dealing with their permits, now operates with reduced hours.
Many need a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA), showing that a foreigner is needed for the job. Delays in obtaining an LMIA, which used to be up to six months, have stretched even further because of COVID-19.
A key recommendation of the report is to grant permanent residency to migrant care workers, since many have already been living and working in Canada for years despite their precarious status.
“PR immediately gives workers the ability to leave a bad job and make a complaint without fear of reprisals. PR means that workers can work in any sector, including in health care, where workers are sorely needed,” it said.
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