Domestic Workers Support in Canada

by Irwin Oostindie

The phone is busy as I enter the Philippine Women Centre, in a rented house in the south-east end of Vancouver. "She doesn't know what to do, she's pregnant, and afraid of being kicked out of the country," exclaims the volunteer staffing the phone. Surrounded by desks, the smell of pancit being prepared in the kitchen, and a box of newsletters waiting to be mailed to contacts, this basement organizing room is active.

"They can't kick her out if she has her authorization papers," advises one of two paid workers at the Centre. "Just because she's pregnant, as long as she has the papers to be in Canada, she is safe until it runs out."

In Tagalog, the national Philippine language, the woman counseling on the phone is passing on possibilities of the woman getting married to the guy. "Don't do it," an assertive voice speaks up in the room. "It'll only bring more problems later, it's no solution."

I ask about the authorization papers. "You first get authorization to work in Canada, and then you need to find an employer or agency." My mind wanders to all of the horror stories I have read about the tens of thousands of Filipino workers who spend money to go abroad, and then find they've been scammed by the recruiting agencies. The support work that happens at the Centre is as varied as it is vital.

The live-in domestics in Canada come mostly from the Philippines and the Caribbean. The live-in requirement of Canada Immigration is designed to facilitate exploitation by the employers and minimize the independence of the woman. While official working hours are 44-53 hours/week, the actual numbers are closer to 70-80 every week. Average wages are $175 (US)/week, with the worker left with about $100 (US) after taxes and room and board charges.

Another financial burden affecting women leaving the Philippines, in search of earning a living to support their families, are the huge fees paid to the Philippine government, recruitment agencies, and air travel. Many migrant workers spend their first year's earnings just paying off the investment to get abroad.

Options for Filipino women are limited back at home. Carrying the double burden of raising a family and generating income to care for it, the Institute of Labor Studies (Philippines) reports that "a poor Filipino woman typically works from 14 to 18 hours a day. Women are farmers involved in rice, coconut, vegetable and sugarcane production. They predominate in the informal economy as washerwomen, itinerant vendors or traders." When working in wage jobs, they earn an average 35% of the already low salaries of men, the institute reports.

As migrant workers, Filipinas work in the service sector, especially domestic or house-work, considered to be in the "private sphere," and in the confines of the home. Maitet Ledesma, an organizer with the Commission for Filipino Migrant Workers, offers this overall picture: "The withholding of wages, low pay, long working hours, menial and unskilled job categories, the lack of opportunities for meaningful career advancement and the lack of work benefits and job security, are only some of the problems. The trauma of having to work in jobs much lower to one's level of skill, experience and educational training, permanently scars the self-esteem, confidence and dignity of the women." In Canada, Filipino women come prepared with university degrees and college certificates before reaching immigration.

The situation for the hundreds of thousands of unauthorized women working without proper papers in Europe, North America, and Asia is especially grave and urgent. Ledesma points out that their illegal status forces them to continue to work under violent and slave-like conditions, without access to the legal justice system. If they do break free of their oppressor, the justice system criminalizes them for their status.

"As trafficked women, either recruited for illegal work; mediated by marriage bureaus as fiancees and brides of European or North American men; falsely recruited for prostitution and working as 'entertainers,' Filipinas have become fodder for a multi-million-dollar industry trading in women. They encounter violence at the hands of unscrupulous recruiters, partners and husbands and pimps who try to impose their power over them, by breaking their bodies and spirit," states Ledesma.

"Filipina migrants live in two worldsówith memories of their past, growing up and eventually leaving families behind in the Philippines, haunting them with overwhelming guilt, loneliness and isolation; and living their current realities in faraway lands, among peoples and cultures always interestingly different, sometimes strange, often hostile." Ledesma points out that migrants naturally look for and form close friendships and personal relations with compatriots. "This community provides them with emotional support they need to cope, and acts as a cushion to the obvious non-acceptance and social marginalization. Loneliness, withdrawal and isolation, and depression which has led to suicide in some cases," are common complaints among majority of the migrant women population.

Back in Vancouver, at the Philippine Women Centre, the woman on the phone hangs up and limps with a wounded ankle, the result of a fall in the home of her previous employer. While her doctor suggested a cast, her former employer harassed her to stay working. Not having paid the nominal W.C.B. fees required by law for worker's disability compensation, she is without immediate support. So this week, the Centre is also a shelter for a sister who would have been isolated in her live-in situation.

Now she is offering her own support to other women on the phone, while helping with educational and social events on the weekends. Many women leave their live-in situations for a day on the weekend and use the Centre as a meeting place to be with others.