Families Feel ‘Blindsided’ By Uncertainty Around Foreign Caregiver Program
Foreign caregivers are godsends to parents with odd work hours and no family support. But it’s no longer a cheaper option for Canadian families.
Growing up, Natalie Mukherjee and her sisters were cared for by Filipino nannies. Her family had two Filipino nurses taking turns to look after their late grandmother. Now a mother of three, she gets help from a Filipino live-in caregiver.
Despite the many reincarnations through the years, the foreign caregiver program has been an integral part of Canadian immigration since women from England, Ireland and Finland were granted permanent residence in the early 1900s to come as “nannies,” “nursemaids” and “governesses.”
With Ottawa set to start public consultations on the future of the caregiver program, Canadian families say the demand for foreign caregivers, especially in suburban Canada, is as great as ever.
Earlier this month, the federal government announced the current caregiver program will expire in November 2019 after a five-year run. The news has raised questions among families and caregivers about the future of the popular program.
“We have an aging population and are caught up in a generation where our parents are still working and our kids can’t rely on their grandparents,” said Mukherjee of Markham. She and her husband, an accountant, have two daughters and a son, all under 7 years old.
“Canadians are not picking up nanny jobs and there’s a wait-time galore for daycare spots. We work odd hours and the flexibility of having a live-in caregiver is something that no daycare can replace.”
Canada’s caregiver program is unique because it allows a group of what are generally considered “low-skilled” migrant foreign workers to become permanent residents, along with their families, based on their commitment to work as full-time caregivers for a minimum of two years.
The access to permanent status was bait, in the past, for the workers to leave behind their families back home and work as live-in caregivers in Canada — a hard-fought right by the “Foreign Domestics Movement” in the 1980s. Other low-skilled temporary foreign workers such as farmworkers do not have such access to permanent residency.
However, in 2014, Ottawa introduced what it called “two new pathways” for caregivers by removing the live-in condition as a way to eliminate potential work abuse and exploitation, though many caregivers continue to live with their employers because they can’t afford transportation and rent to have their own place.
The government also imposed higher language and post-secondary education requirements for caregivers to qualify for permanent residence, and raised the employers’ application fee from $275 to $1,000 for a more robust assessment process to ensure the job is genuine and can’t be filled by a Canadian. (Since December, the federal government has eliminated the $1,000 caregiver application fees for families with medical needs and whose gross annual income is less than $150,000.)
Earlier this month, Immigration Canada announced the caregiver program is under review and those who have not accrued two years of employment by Nov. 29, 2019 will be ineligible for permanent residence.
The announcement has created a buzz among caregivers and their Canadian employers.
“People do feel blindsided,” said Ilana Katz, an Aurora mother of two, whose caregiver just arrived from the Philippines last October and would have to go without a vacation in order to make the 2019 permanent residence cut-off.
In caregivers’ applications to her job posting for a nanny in Canada, said Katz, “All say they want a better future and have their family here.”
A speech pathologist who works from a home office, Katz said there is no infant child care in Aurora and the family had been unsuccessful in finding a local caregiver. Only two Canadians responded to her ad — one could only work until 4 p.m.; the other didn’t want to commute from Toronto.
The family ended up hiring a part-time au pair, a girl from France, who was in Canada on a working holiday visa for a year before paying an agent to hire a foreign live-in caregiver to look after their two young daughters, Maya, 4, and Noa, 2. Ontario’s commitment to create 45,000 new daycare spots doesn’t help families like Katz’s.
“We need daycare during non-daycare hours. No one wants to come to Aurora to work for us,” said Katz, who often has clients coming to her after school or on weekends. Her husband, an apprentice in trades, works long hours and is busy with his studies.
Having hired and employed four foreign caregivers over the last 10 years, Joele Tan said the program, whether it’s the old live-in caregiver program or the revised one in the last few years, has been a mess.
“I’m not 100 per cent convinced there’s a shortage of caregivers. Maybe for specialized care for the aging population, but not for child care,” said the Toronto mother of twins, who works in sales and marketing. “If you go to these (online) mom and nanny groups, there are so many people looking for jobs.”
Tan said many foreign caregivers would leave their sponsored families for “factory and Tim Hortons jobs” as soon as they get their open work permits and commence the permanent residence application process.
“Canadian caregivers feel they are more educated and they are not foreigners. None wants to live in and they are not flexible with their hours,” said Tan, whose husband travels a lot for work and whose twins are 11. “With foreign caregivers, by 24 months, they check out. Or they decide to come back and ask to work for cash.”
The changes to the program in 2014 didn’t make the process any easier, said Tan, who used to complete the caregiver applications herself but had to use an agent to bring in her latest nanny because the process has become so “convoluted and specific.”
“We need the caregiver program. This is not a luxury, but a necessity,” said Tan. “Canada is big on immigration and diversity is wonderful, but we need to ask if our country needs more citizens or do we need more workers?”
While she does not object to granting permanent residence to caregivers, she says the two-year employment requirement should be expanded to four to allow families the stability they need and save them from the bureaucratic nightmare of having to hire a new caregiver every two years.
A string of changes to the process has also made it more expensive to hire and employ foreign caregivers, said Tan.
Employers said Ontario’s minimum wage hike to $14 from $11.60 last year — and to $15 in 2019 — has made many families in the province reconsider using the caregiver program.
Nathalie Cansino, whose nanny came in 2016, said the higher minimum wage has pushed the cost of foreign caregivers much higher, despite what she calls the “convenience factor” of having someone live-in.
Without her caregiver, she said she would need to spend $1,700 on infant care for her 2-year-old son and another $500 on after school programs for her 4-year-old daughter. The federal child care tax credit is really just a drop in the bucket on how much families invest in their children’s care, she said.
“Ontario’s minimum wage raise makes the caregiver program not a cheaper option. Hiring a live-out costs you $15, $16 an hour,” noted the transportation system manager, who must arrive at work by 7 a.m.
“At this point, it does not make any financial sense. I need to do the math on before- and after-school care, summer and March breaks to see if this is costing me much more.”