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The question

Our neighbour employs a nanny for a four-year-old child. He is our child's best friend, so he and the nanny visit us at our house frequently. During these visits, the nanny has disclosed to us that she is forced to work 100 hours a week, is paid $500 a month, is given no holidays or weekends and is prohibited from holding her passport or seeing her contract. As she is from another country, she is trapped and has no means to escape her situation. What should we do?

The answer

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Oh, man, that pssssht sound you hear is of a real can of worms being opened here.

Every year, more than 30,000 women come to this country seeking employment as domestic caregivers. And because of a curious collection of rules and regs that, to me, seem to stack the deck against them, some find themselves in a "nanny trap" like the one you're describing.

Personally, I think you should attempt to help – that you may even have a moral obligation to do so.

But I advise you to proceed with the extreme caution of a bomb-disposal operative fiddling with the controls of a thermonuclear device. Cut the wrong wire, push the wrong button, and a mushroom cloud of misery could appear over your whole neighbourhood, and you'll feel the fallout for years to come.

Got that? Okay, so before wading in, ask yourself a couple of questions.

First, are you willing to take some heat? Because your neighbours could get a tad frosty if they find out you've been meddling in what they probably consider to be their private affairs.

Second, do you believe the nanny? I'm not trying to be cynical here. And I'm very pro-nanny (or pro-caregiver, as ours prefers to be called). But not everyone tells the truth all the time, you know what I'm saying?

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But assuming you've seen enough with your own two eyes to corroborate the nanny's testimony, and you're willing to take a little flak/heat/froideur from the neighbours, what do you do next?

I consulted a couple of experts on the best way to proceed.

According to Deena Ladd, co-ordinator at the Toronto-based Workers' Action Centre, you first need to establish "agency" on the nanny's part – i.e. does she really want to leave?

That's crucial. Because, if she's just venting, you may not be doing her any favours by wading in and attempting unilaterally to "solve" this problem.

From what you've said, it sounds like she is probably here under the auspices of the federal government's "live-in caregiver program."

If so, she is subject to a curious concatenation of (I think) bizarre stipulations: 1) She is on a limited work visa, so can work only for this particular family; 2) She must live with them; 3) She has to work 24 months before she is eligible for permanent-resident status (and thus can work for someone else).

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These stipulations form the walls of the "nanny trap" I alluded to above. Under this system, of course, she is at risk of putting up with a lot of crap and injustice from her host family. If she quits or is fired, she can't work until whatever complaint she might have lodged is resolved, or another host family steps forward, and these things can take months.

And it's not like nannies often have huge piles of savings lying around in their bank accounts to fall back on. Often, according to Ms. Ladd, when they get into a dispute with their employer, they wind up in a shelter – and may even have to leave the country.

So the stakes are pretty high.

Having said all that, she does have rights: For starters, the right to be paid a) minimum wage and b) overtime for any amount she works over 44 hours a week.

Which means, if she is making $500 a month for 100-hour weeks, her employer owes her a pantload. (Currently, Ms. Ladd is helping a Ugandan nanny who was paid only $100 a month for 16-hour days with a $162,000 lawsuit against her employers.)

According to John No, a staff lawyer at Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto, the first step for her is keeping a "work diary" of her day-to-day activities, so that she has something in writing documenting how she is being treated, how many hours she is working and what she is being paid.

Next, steer her toward a legal-aid clinic lawyer who can advise her of her rights, such as they are (and, btw, at least here in Ontario, taking away her passport is against the law).

Mr. No definitely advises against your confronting the neighbours directly, saying it will only make things worse for the nanny.

I agree. The probable outcome of that scenario, in my mind: They freak out, blow up at you, then take it out on the nanny within the four walls of their domicile, in a million little ways, making her life even more miserable than ever.

Mr. No says that if she does take action, she should expect to be fired, then have a fight on her hands, and a rocky road ahead – at least for a while.

And the road might get a little rocky for you as well if your neighbours find out you helped their nanny. You might have to endure some dirty looks in the street. Your son could lose his best friend.

But I would suggest that those inconveniences are outweighed by the suffering you would alleviate if you're able to help this woman find decent employers who treat her well and pay her fairly.

I've made a huge mistake

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