Nanny Abuse

Many nannies suffer quietly in isolation, often cowed into silence by employers who threaten them with deportation

Many nannies suffer quietly in isolation, often cowed into silence by employers who threaten them with deportation
Video-still from Brown Women Blond Babies, a documentary by Marie Boti and Sr. Florchita Bautista. / © 1991 Productions Multi-Monde

Sometimes when you are driving by a park you’ll catch a glimpse of brown-skinned women weighted with the responsibility of caring for white-skinned children. Their own governments are happy to see them go—better to export poverty than perpetuate it at home. And Ottawa, forever lacking a national child-care policy, has been only too willing to tap into this vast pool of cheap, desperate labour—after all, our baby boomers needed the help. But now the nannies to the country’s richest generation are demanding a quicker route to citizenship and protection from abusive employers. Will they receive it?

Flickering candles cast a pale glow on the tiny, dark-haired woman kneeling in front of a small statue of the Virgin. “God give me strength,” Kristina murmurs in front of the makeshift altar, her thumb moving unconsciously through a rosary dangling from her right hand. “Hail Mary, full of grace,” she continues as a door slams shut down the hall. Her prayers interrupted, she turns on a bare overhead light revealing the gray concrete walls of her tiny room in the basement of a mansion in central Vancouver. Moving to her bed, she sits with her back against the cold wall, draws her knees to her chest, closes her eyes and runs through her chores for the next day—get the five kids to and from school, take the youngest to the doctor, clean six bedrooms, do four loads of laundry, and prepare a casserole dinner for eight. “God,” she begins praying again, “just help me get everything done.”

She tries to sleep, but the whir of the furnace just a few feet from her bed keeps her awake and finally she reaches for a half-finished blanket of red, yellow, and blue wool and knits late into the night. Kristina, twenty-six, came to Canada in 1999 under Ottawa’s controversial Live-in Caregiver Program, an initiative that has lured tens of thousands of women to Canada from impoverished countries over the last twenty-five years. As so many in the developing world have done before them, these young women left, or, more accurately, were forced to leave, the security of family for the promise of a more prosperous life in the West. If years of hardship can be endured after their arrival, they may even reach their ultimate goal and be given citizenship and the right to rescue their relatives from poverty by bringing them to Canada.

Unlike wealthy foreigners who can purchase Canadian passports simply by making an investment in Canada or highly educated immigrants who receive landed immigrant status on arrival, women like Kristina are told to line up at Canada’s back door. They will not be given landed status—essentially citizenship—on arrival and will be admitted only if they agree to work for a minimum of two years as live-in nannies. On the surface that may not seem so bad: two years of servitude in exchange for a Canadian passport. Even the low wages—about $700 a month after room and board—may seem adequate to many. And besides, don’t nannies eat the same meals, watch television, and go on vacations with the families they’re living with?

Many are no doubt happy doing just that, but after more than two decades in operation, according to politicians on both sides of the House of Commons, the Live-in program has a darker side, one that has exploited impoverished women from around the globe and must be reformed. It has now come under formal scrutiny by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and several studies cast a disturbing light on the baby boomers—the richest generation in Canadian history—who employed most of the women. During a period when individual rights were enshrined in law, and women, finally freed from the kitchen and the nursery, entered the workforce in numbers almost equalling their male counterparts, many of the nannies were suffering physical and mental abuse at the hands of the very people they had liberated from the routine drudgery of family life.

An advertisement placed by an Internet auction house in the Montreal Gazette in 2003 is an extreme case, but underscores both the vulnerability of the nannies and the contempt in which they are often held. The auctioneers wanted to offer up the services of three nannies to the highest bidder, generating a heated debate on the floor of the House of Commons where politicians called for a drastic overhaul of the Live-in program. At the same time, many nannies came forward with stories of abuse, and crushingly long hours of work with very little pay. Others compared attempts to auction the women to a more painful time in history. “Foreign domestic workers have become Canada’s modern-day slaves,” says Evelyn Calugay of pinay, a Montreal-based advocacy group for Filipina women. “I would call it trafficking in humans.”

Such public demonstrations of outrage are rare. Many nannies suffer quietly in isolation, often cowed into silence by employers who threaten them with deportation and calls to the police. Kristina, for one, had no one to turn to when her employer refused to pay her nearly $3,000 in back pay. There was more to this debt than money owed for work done. She would soon be eligible for landed-immigrant status. If granted, it would allow her to find employment other than as a live-in nanny and move her a step closer to bringing family members to Canada—one of the main reasons she came to this country in the first place. But federal immigration authorities wanted $1,500 to process her application—money she didn’t have. “My employer couldn’t pay me, the person she trusted to care for her children,” she laments. “But she could afford to pay the swimming pool clean and stock her bar full of liquor.”

In 1993, 57 percent of workers in the Caregiver Program were from the Philippines. That figure rose to 93 percent by 2002, an increase that can largely be attributed to the complementary relationship between Ottawa’s determination to find a source of cheap labour to provide daycare, and the Philippines’ draconian labour export policy, a controversial government initiative under which Filipinos are encouraged to work overseas and send money home.

The export of impoverished Filipinos to richer countries began in the 1970s as Manila looked for ways to reduce unemployment and diversify the economy beyond rice and sugar-cane farming. Banks were encouraged to loan individuals money to go abroad, and fly-by-night employment agencies promoting foreign contacts soon opened in cities and villages across the country. Today females are the principal export, and in 1998 Filipinas working abroad sent almost $8 billion home.

While the Philippines’ economy improved with the inflow of foreign earnings, Ottawa in turn could boast that it had provided the baby boomers with a program to help them raise their families while allowing both spouses to work. “The Philippines has generated this new hero,” says Audrey Macklin, a law professor at the University of Toronto and former member of the Immigration and Refugee Board. “The Filipina woman is seen as the migrant worker who is lifting their country out of poverty. In Canada, the Filipina woman is seen as the domestic worker who has come to the family’s rescue.”

Filipina women have paid a heavy price in the process, and Denis Coderre, the former minister of citizenship and immigration, set the tone for the review of the Caregiver Program in the wake of the controversial auctioning of the nannies in Montreal, saying “using the Internet for slavery is revolting.” As part of the reassessment, Citizenship and Immigration is conducting a series of consultations with employment-agency officials and domestic-worker associations, and will send their recommendations to the minister of immigration later this year. “We know women in the program report being abused,” admits Immigration spokesperson Maria Iadinardi. “It’s upsetting to hear that employers threaten these women with deportation if they don’t do what they’re told.”

Equally disturbing is what happens to many domestic workers when they finish the Caregiver Program and achieve permanent residence status. Many, without access to education and retraining, continue to work as low-paid nannies, and the cycle of abuse continues. Even more troubling: a recent study by the Philippine Women’s Centre of British Columbia suggests that a growing number of nannies are working part-time as prostitutes so they can pay off bank loans and debts to unscrupulous immigration consultants. “Canada has designed a program to have a continuous supply of cheap labour,” says filmmaker Florchita Bautista, whose 1999 documentary When Strangers Reunite follows the lives of three Filipina domestic workers who came to Canada. “The poverty these women so desperately tried to pull themselves and their children out of is only being transferred from one country to another.”

A crowing rooster announces the rising of the sun over the tiny farm that Kristina’s parents own in the countryside outside of Cebu, a financial centre and popular tourist destination in the southern Philippines. As she does almost every day, Kristina’s younger sister, Jan, rose early to feed the cows and goats before sitting down to a breakfast of rice and fish. This day would be different. After kneeling in prayer with her mother, Jan left on an hour-long walk along a dirt road to catch the bus that will take her into Cebu to register for university. Four hours later, as the bus finally approached the city, she watched the densely green landscape slowly turn urban, with posh new hotels and tourist cottages lining the white sand beaches.

In the evening, wealthy foreigners jam the city’s discotheques, restaurants, and shops selling diving gear and beach wear. Jan hurries by these places. On her family’s $500 annual income she can’t afford to shop there anyway. But there are other businesses she visits that tourists never enter. Simple signs made from cardboard and paint and others of flashy neon, hang above these makeshift shops, enticing young people with information about immigration, passports, and overseas employment. Jan knows these businesses only too well. When she finishes university she will be pressured by her family to find a job abroad.

“My parents have been telling Jan that she will be responsible to pay for our brothers to go to university,” says Kristina. “And my parents told me when I was in elementary school that I would be responsible for Jan’s education.” At first Kristina resisted, and when she finished high school she took a college secretarial course. But for more than two years the only employment she could find was with a trucking company that paid only $100 a month—not nearly enough to help with the family’s expenses, let alone pay for Jan’s education.

So, finally, she found herself in an employment agency in Cebu. For a fee of $3,600, they would place Kristina in a good home in Hong Kong. But at the last minute, an aunt—who had become a mail-order bride and married a Canadian—called from BC to say that she could help find Kristina a position in Canada. There was only one problem. To get the job, she would have to borrow $500 from friends to pay for a six-month vocational training course in Cebu. She would learn how to use a microwave, vacuum, change a baby’s diaper, and do laundry. “My aunt said I would earn really good money in Canada, so I worked hard to be accepted into the Live-in Caregiver Program,” said Kristina. “My aunt also said that Canada was heaven.”

Kristina knew if she didn’t go to Canada, she wouldn’t be able to make enough money to support her family. “My friends and I would roll our eyes when we walked by a house with a new roof and a TV satellite dish,” recalls Kristina. “We knew the parents had children working abroad. How else could anyone afford fancy things like microwave ovens and dishwashers?”

Kristina doesn’t want Jan to make the same mistake she did and is warning her not to come. With good reason. Her first assignment in Canada involved caring for a two-year-old girl in Victoria and looked promising. But within a month, Kristina was nearly raped when the child’s grandfather, dressed only in his underwear and stinking of rum and marijuana, barged into the family’s recreation room where she slept. He retreated after she threatened to break a window with a lamp, but came back later that night and tried to re-enter the room.

Her frantic screams finally alerted the man’s wife, who told him to sober up and go to bed. It took her eight months to find a new employer, and every day until she left he would whisper menacingly into her ear about having sex with her. “I felt completely vulnerable,” she says. “I didn’t know what my rights were in Canada and I thought if I called the police they would blame me. It was hell.”

If these poorly paid nannies in the Live-in Caregiver Program are modern-day slaves as critics charge, their masters were the baby boomers, and their children, the so-called Generation X. A study for Status of Women Canada done in 2000 concluded that the typical profile of those employing the nannies was a married couple, age thirty-five, working in the private sector, with two kids and household earnings of more than $100,000.

Many couples employing the nannies believe they are doing them a favour. One month’s salary, after all, is more than most would earn in a year in their impoverished home countries. And then there is landed-immigrant status, something they would likely never achieve under standard immigration rules. But critics charge that employers and the government are perpetuating a myth by claiming that women from the developing world do well by coming to Canada. “I am not surprised that most Canadians don’t get what is going on here,” says Zahra Dhanani, an immigration and human-rights lawyer and former board member for Intercede, a Toronto-based advocacy group for the rights of domestic workers. “The men and women who fought to liberate women over the last century fought to liberate white women. The women’s movement was not thinking of women of colour. They don’t want to jeopardize the rights they have attained by standing up for groups that are still oppressed. It’s easier to live in denial than identify with other peoples’ struggles.”

In fact, a study in 2000 conducted by Intercede concluded from nearly 100 interviews with women working under the Live-in Caregiver Program, that nearly all had suffered some form of abuse, including rape, sexual harassment, and threats of deportation. “Because these women were not born here, it somehow legitimates a different kind of treatment being applied to them,” says Macklin. “Neither the government or individual employers feel accountable for that. Canadians feel in some way that they are not responsible for elevating these women to some position of equality.”

Not recognizing the exploitation that impoverished women face in the West has resulted in the nannies becoming commodities that employers, employment agencies and governments are cashing in on. “There is so much money being made off the backs of foreign women,” says Cecilia Diocson, founder and former chair of the Philippine Women’s Centre of BC, a Vancouver-based organization. “Employers save money by not having to pay child-care fees or having one spouse leave the workforce, employment agencies make domestic workers pay astronomical amounts to pursue their dreams of better lives in the West, and governments like the Philippines deal with the poor and unemployed by sending them abroad.”

When Michael and Rachael had twins at thirty-seven they needed help immediately. A neighbour in their wealthy suburb north of Toronto, recommended the couple hire a nanny through the Live-in Caregiver Program. Within six months of applying, Caroline, a native of Cusco, Peru, knocked at their door. Caroline had lost her job, and with her family facing eviction from their apartment, decided to leave her six-year-old son behind with her husband and come to Canada. The new employers soon experienced the troubled world of the foreign domestic worker when Caroline introduced Rachael to other nannies in a nearby park who told her stories of maltreatment and abuse. “At first I didn’t believe what I was hearing because I just couldn’t imagine employers dehumanizing the women looking after their children,” says Rachael. “But then I saw the behaviour for myself when some of the employers at the park ordered their nannies around like servants.”

They also became embroiled in Caroline’s legal problems. Since completing the mandatory two years of employment under the program, Caroline waited over a year for her immigration papers to be processed. At one point, Michael, a lawyer, tried to expedite Caroline’s application but to no avail. As a result, she ended up being apart from her son for more than three years. “The entire experience with Caroline has really opened my eyes to the injustice that goes on in the playgrounds of our communities,” says Rachael. “It is so disheartening to watch Caroline care for my kids when I think that in Peru there is a child with no mother. The Live-in Program takes advantage of the desperation of people like Caroline.”

“Stupid! You are stupid!” the seven-year-old boy screamed at Maria, his nanny. Maria shook her head in response. “Please don’t say such things,” she admonished, in her thick Mexican accent. “It’s wrong to call people stupid.” Just as she said this, she looked over at the doorway where Jake’s mother was watching the altercation unfold in the kitchen. “I don’t want you telling Jake what he can and can’t do,” she yelled.

Maria, twenty-eight, had been a live-in caregiver for less than two months at their home in Burlington, just west of Toronto, where she cared for Jake and his two older siblings. It wasn’t just the kids who were abusive. Jake’s mother was hostile toward her almost from the outset. She even accused Maria of lying about being able to drive a car and forced her into the driver’s seat of the family’s new sedan and ordered her out onto a busy highway. “I thought I was going to kill us all, including the kids in the back seat,” says Maria. “It was night, and I was petrified.”

Maria started work at sun-up and often didn’t finish until the kids were bathed and asleep. When she did have time for herself, there was no place for her to escape. She wasn’t allowed to watch TV or soak in the bath after a long day. She contacted the Toronto-based employment agency that had arranged the job but received little sympathy. “The agency told me I should work every Friday night for free,” says Maria. “Everything I said, the agency took my employer’s side. I decided right then to find a new employer and a new agency.” Furious when Maria gave notice, her family held back $600 of her salary and began taping her phone calls, including one she made seeking legal advice. They also threatened to write a letter to immigration officials saying that Maria would not be a suitable Canadian citizen.

Now, after years of complaints, politicians may finally be getting ready to help the nannies. Groups supporting the women want changes in two critical areas. Cecilia Diocson recently told the Citizenship and Immigration Canada task force that is investigating the program that, in addition to abolishing the live-in requirement, she wants nannies’ salaries raised so that the women can support themselves. Diocson argued that the requirement forcing foreign domestic employees to work for two years before they can apply for permanent residency is grossly unfair. Like others addressing the committee, Diocson maintains that since there is a scarcity of Canadians willing to do this kind of work, nannies should be accepted as skilled labourers. “These women,” says Diocson, “should receive permanent residency upon landing in Canada like any other class of immigrants whose work is seen as necessary to the economy.”

Under the current immigration system, foreigners are assessed and awarded points for educational achievement, work experience, and employment potential. The more points an individual has, the greater likelihood they will be accepted under the skilled-labourer class. Women in the Live-in Caregiver Program, however, can rarely acquire enough points to be considered under these rules. “Domestic workers aren’t seen as worthy of coming into the country like everyone else, so they must use the Live-in Caregiver Program instead,” says Louise Langevin, a law professor at Quebec’s Université Laval and co-author of Trafficking in Women in Canada. “The program amounts to back-door immigration.”

Once the review of the program is completed, the findings will be forwarded to Immigration Minister Judy Sgro. Sgro has been heavily criticized by opposition politicians who claim she fast-tracked the approval for a Romanian stripper working on her re-election campaign, allowing her to stay in Canada under another dubious immigration policy that encourages women in desperate economic situations to come to Canada to work in strip clubs. According to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act by a Vancouver lawyer, Human Resources Development Canada was told that many of the dancers, brought in to fill labour shortages, would be forced into prostitution at clubs controlled by criminal gangs. And at one point in 1998, Immigration Canada officials warned Human Resources in a memo that they were “extremely hesitant to send women into this profession.” Even so, Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew, who was then human resources minister, approved the program.

Finally, after days of heated exchanges in the House of Commons late last year, the government announced that the women would no longer be imported as dancers. The same kind of pressure is now mounting on the Live-in Caregiver Program. “There have been similar problems with both the live-in program and the exotic-dancer program,” says Bill Siksay, ndp Citizenship and Immigration critic. “The live-in program has been an important aspect of child care in Canada for many years, but it has also been a source of exploitation of foreign women. The live-in component has been especially problematic and I would urge the government to review this requirement.”

It would be months before Kristina finally escaped her abusive Vancouver employer. With the help of a kindly lawyer she managed to get the $3,000 in back pay owed to her, and was finally able to apply for landed immigrant status and find her own place to live. She now rents a two-bedroom, subsidized apartment in downtown Vancouver, furnished with a couch, end tables, computer, TV, and nativity figures.

Kristina also gave birth to a baby daughter, who coos happily in a playpen in the corner. The baby’s father is the son of a domestic worker who came to Canada after being left behind in the Philippines for fifteen years while his mother worked in Canada. He has trouble holding down a job and has a gambling problem. As a result, she has decided to raise her daughter on her own—a move that has been criticized by some of her Roman Catholic friends. She blames the father’s money and job problems on the fact that he was apart from his mother for so many years. “I can really see the impact the separation had on him,” says Kristina. “He’s lost and I don’t want my daughter to grow up with that kind of uncertainty.”

When she arrived in Canada, she was not aware that she was part of the exodus of women from poor nations. But Kristina now plans to tell her daughter about everything she has been through. “People in the Philippines are in denial,” she says. “It’s like the money Filipinas earn in the West washes away the sacrifices and misery. I want my sister Jan and daughter to be aware of the struggles of the Filipina women in Canada and in the Philippines.” If any good can come out of her experience, she hopes it is that her sister and daughter can avoid the ordeal she has been through.

It will help if Ottawa finally reforms its Live-in Program, and allows impoverished women from around the world to enter Canada through the front door.

Susan McClelland
Susan McClelland co-authored Stars Between the Sun and Moon: One Woman’s Life in North Korea and Escape to Freedom.