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Lou Janssen Dangzalan is an immigration lawyer who works with home care workers, healthcare workers, and international students.

Last week, Migrant Rights Network, an advocacy group advancing the cause of migrant justice, published a report titled Behind Closed Doors, which documented the challenges faced by Canada’s foreign care workers. The abuses are not new, but the pandemic has made them worse: accounts ranged from gruelling 12-hour work shifts with no days off, to wage theft. Some involved workers barred from leaving their employer’s house - becoming virtual prisoners - for fear of bringing COVID home. As these temporary-work permit holders depend on their employers to secure permanent residence (PR), they generally do not speak up.

The report advocates PR status for all migrant workers, which would give them more options to work for other employers, but it’s unlikely that this will happen owing to the current high bar to qualify. But there are concrete steps the government can take to prevent these abuses by creating clear and predictable pathways to permanent residence for our care workers.

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Many governments in the past have unsuccessfully tried to find a solution to the abuses faced by migrant care workers, who will endure mind-boggling abuses for PR status because this allows them to bring their family to Canada These abuses remain a black eye on Canada’s reputation as a country that claims to uphold human rights and fight modern-day slavery.

The Live-In Caregiver Program introduced in 1992 allowed a foreign national to apply for PR after working in Canada as a caregiver for two years. It remained until 2014, when the Harper government introduced two pilot programs - Caring for Children and People, and Caring for People with High Medical Needs - to address the abuses that had started to be uncovered by the media. These pilots removed the “live-in” requirement, meaning that caregivers were no longer required to reside with their employers, which was thought to be one of the major causes of abuse. The Harper pilots also introduced higher language and education requirements.

Confused with all the changes? So are the caregivers - and there’s more. The latest occurred in 2019, when the Trudeau government implemented new pilots: Home Child Care Provider, and Home Support Worker. These programs prescreen would-be caregivers for permanent residence before they receive their work permits. The purpose is to sift out caregiver candidates who would not qualify for PR through some form of inadmissibility. They also implemented an interim program designed to eliminate the backlog from the legacy Live-In Caregiver Program. However, the Interim Pathway for Caregivers' introduction was abrupt and it was open only for two brief windows of three months each in 2019, and did not clear the backlog. Reintroducing this program in a meaningful way would address that problem and buy the government some time to put together a more effective immigration program for caregivers.

Today, the Trudeau pilot programs prescreen caregiver applicants for permanent resident status, allowing workers who complete the two-year program to quickly qualify. However, this new requirement is leading to longer processing times. PR screening requires a stricter security, background, and health check compared with those applying for a work permit. Depending on the visa office in a caregiver’s home country, the time added to process an application could be in the order of months, or worse, years. This renders the programs untenable for most employers. Someone who needs a caregiver cannot wait that long.

Two days after the release of the Migrant Rights Network report, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced Canada’s plan to welcome 1.2 million permanent residents in the next three years. As the government will undoubtedly have trouble fulfilling its ambitious target of 400,000 new PRs in 2021, they should prioritize those who are already in Canada, including caregivers, who do not enjoy PR status. Such a move would increase Ottawa’s chance of meeting that target.

A clear and sustainable long-term caregiver program must be developed. Government must do away with flimsy pilot programs that only confuse our caregivers. There is a clear demand for caregivers in Canada and the vocation deserves its own permanent place in the immigration system.

One approach would be to piggy-back the caregiver program under the Express Entry system. Express Entry, Canada’s main intake system for economic immigration, is seen as a huge success, especially from the government’s perspective. The government can create a class or program under the system similar to the Federal Skilled Trades program and ensure that there are caregiver-specific Express Entry draws from the general pool of candidates.

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This would create predictability and transparency in the system. Successful government programs already exist that can serve as blueprints to ensure quick deployment. Mr. Mendicino has shown an openness to revamping our immigration system in the face of once-in-a-century challenges such as COVID. If he succeeds in finding a tenable solution to the caregiver immigration mess, it would be a legacy he would leave that ends decades of abuses, exploitation and failed pilot programs.

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