Colonialism and global capitalism have created a situation in the Philippines where its economy is dependent on transnational corporations, where low-wage contract work, poverty and unemployment are rampant, and where 2000 workers leave the country daily in search of a livelihood.

Racism, sexism and Canadian immigration

by Pauline Hwang

Melca Salvador may be deported any day now. Her crime: giving birth to a son five years ago on Canadian soil. Her punishment: the impossible choice between an impoverished life for him in the Philippines, or leaving him with strangers in Canada. Now Salvador, a Filipino migrant domestic worker in Montreal, is campaigning against what she calls the systemic racism and sexism of the Canadian government’s Live-in Caregiver program.

Salvador entered Canada in 1995 as one of thousands of Filipino workers in the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP). The LCP is an initiative of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, allowing foreign workers (almost always women) to enter Canada as domestic workers living in their employer’s home. Salvador earns $271 for a 49-hour week and after taxes takes home $221. After completing 24 months of work within 3 years of arriving, caregivers are allowed to apply for landed immigrant status.

“The deal is if they come and fill this contract they will have a fast lane to Canadian residency, which is a lot harder to get otherwise,” says Martin Thériault, spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada. For Salvador, the choice to come to Canada was a matter of life and death for her family.

“Basically I had no choice if we wanted to live,” she says, “but I didn’t have enough money to come as an independent migrant right away.” Even with the LCP, applicants pay fees to their own government, to the Canadian and Quebec governments, to the employment agency, and for their travel. For Salvador this amounted to over $4700 Canadian. “We almost sell our souls just to come here as domestic workers.”

Colonialism and global capitalism have created a situation in the Philippines where its economy is dependent on transnational corporations, where low-wage contract work, poverty and unemployment are rampant, and where 2000 workers leave the country daily in search of a livelihood. “Last week, a member of an organization in the Philippines came and told us what was happening there because of a Canadian mining company,” she recalls, observing the role Canada plays in the economic situation there. “Even the water they’re drinking is contaminated.”

Louella Alatiit, a U2 Music student, is active in Montreal’s Filipino community and in the media/research committee for Salvador’s campaign. “In my view what motivates the government to maintain the LCP is the need for cheap labour,” she says. She also relates the situation of Filipino domestic workers to the forces of globalization and the situation of the Philippines. “Firstly, the Philippines has the Labour Export Policy that systematically pushes Filipinos out of the country, so that they can earn money abroad.In the meanwhile there are millions of dollars being sent back to the Philippines by these migrants. Melca is one of the casualties of this global trade in people.”

Workplace rights in the home

Salvador has been elected vice-chairperson of Pinay, a Filipino women’s advocacy and support organization. Pinay gives caregivers information, advice, and guidance through the myriad problems they may encounter with employers, agencies, and the government. Many of its members are current and former caregivers who call strongly for the LCP to be overhauled or abolished. The Canadian Filipino community in general also wants the program scrapped and campaigns across Canada on the issue.

Critics of the LCP say that significant problems arise for migrant workers under the program. As caregivers live in the home, they often work unpaid overtime, including extra tasks such as cleaning, cooking and tutoring.

“We usually work 60-70 hours per week without overtime pay, and don’t complain for fear of losing our jobs,” explains Salvador. “We can’t complain about the working conditions, when we depend on the employer and the agency for our papers. So we basically don’t have any more rights. I remember when the employer told me “your priority is your papers, right?”.The [Live-in Caregiver] program is what gives them power to treat us this way.”

Theoretically, live-in caregivers are granted basic rights such as access to employment insurance, pregnancy leave, overtime pay, vacations and paid holidays. Thériault suggests that those with employer complaints should file them with the Commission des normes du travail in Quebec. And if the caregiver is fired, “they are still allowed to find another employer in the meantime.”

But there is a gap between the theory and the reality that caregivers face. One problem Salvador finds with this procedure is that if a caregiver is fired, whether or not she files a complaint, the 4-6 month waiting period for a new work permit is too long.

“They say we’re allowed to change employers if there are problems, but the problem is the processing time and we need to complete our time in 3 years.”

In Salvador’s case, when her employers learned she was pregnant, they fired her. She was not allowed to work between permits, eventually could not fulfill the 24-month requirement. She says some employers considered her “damaged goods.” In contrast, a pregnant colleague heeded her employer’s suggestion to have an abortion, kept her job, and eventually became an immigrant.

“The reason I didn’t fulfill the requirements is that I was pregnant, gave birth and was fired. If I were a man, of course I would have no problem fulfilling the 24 months. Is it forbidden to become pregnant when you’re a woman? That was the only crime I did.”

Salvador did not comply with her first order to leave by August 25, as she has filed an appeal to remain in Canada on humanitarian grounds. She met with an immigration official two weeks ago, however, and was told they will not wait for a decision on the appeal; she has until November 2nd to leave or be deported by force.

Canada: A cultural mosaic?

According to Salvador’s affidavit, “[t]he [immigration] officer found that the applicant’s volunteer work with three local community organizations did not show integration into Canadian society, because the organizations exist to help persons of Filipino origin.”

When a local member of the National Action Committee of the Status of Women found out about this statement, she was outraged. “She said to tell the officer that I had worked with NAC,” Salvador recalls. “I said ‘that’s not the point! Is it bad to help the Filipino Canadian community? She was discriminating against me.'”

Furthermore, although an employer made known his willingness to hire her, the officer expressed doubts that Salvador could find a job in Canada. But throughout her sporadic employment, she had never let herself become a burden to the Canadian government.

“I was here 5 years, and only making $221 a week net, and I always paid my immigration paper fees.”

Some of the caregivers were skilled workers such as nurses or accountants in the Philippines, but in Canada are confined to domestic caregiving – jobs that Canadians don’t want to do (that’s why there’s a demand).

“But we are willing to work as caregivers,” says Salvador. “We just want residency status. For example, when Canada brought in foreign nurses to fill demand, they were given status. In fact our work allows both Canadian parents to work and contribute to Canadian society. Then we also contribute our taxes and fees. So the Canadian government gets a lot out of the deal.”

Salvador points out that the Canadian government saves money importing the cheaper labour of women from developing countries, instead of instituting a national childcare program – essentially filling a public need with a private solution.

Her affidavit states that the immigration officer also suggested that her son, presumably left behind in Canada, would not suffer trauma due to separation from one of his parents, as he has never seen his father.

William Sloan, Salvador’s lawyer, argues that Salvador and her son should remain in Canada for humanitarian reasons.

“Melca’s child, Richard, is a Canadian citizen, and as a result he has all the rights accorded to a Canadian citizen, including the Constitutional right to live in Canada, and the right to security of the person. If you deport Richard’s mother one of these two basic rights would be violated, either the right to live in Canada if deported along with his mother, or the right to security of the person if he stays in Canada because he would be separated from his mother, the only parent he has ever know.”

Thériault is surprised to hear the criticism of the federal government’s program.

“Those are critiques that we’re not even aware of,” he says. “I don’t really understand how it’s possible to not fill the [24 month] requirements.” He cannot, however, comment on why Salvador was refused an extension on her work permit.

Thériault concurs that Richard should theoretically be granted all the rights and access to services of any other Canadian citizen, including access to health care. Salvador was not able, however, to renew her son’s medicare card when her employment authorization ran out.

“They say Canada is number one when it comes to human rights. Like this brochure says, if you were born in Canada, you get medicare. But the officials at the medicare office say that when my papers expire, his medicare expires. Why is he not entitled? Because he’s the son of a live-in caregiver? Because he’s the son of a woman of colour?”

On the campaign front

The Campaign to Stop the Explusion of Melca Salvador has included many community members and students in research, letter-writing campaigns, media outreach, raising legal funds, organizing demonstrations, and distributing information. Petitions and letters of support have been received from migrant worker communities around the world.

Their press release states that LCP critics insist deporting women live-in caregivers such as Salvador, and others in several recent cases, is “unjust on humanitarian grounds.these women are not disposable commodities that Canada can use and then just dump at will.”

Demands for the Canadian government include allowing Salvador to remain in Canada with her son Richard, recognizing the rights and contributions of foreign caregivers and nannies to Canada, granting Melca and all LCP workers residency now, and abolishing the LCP as it now exists.

“In many cases these women are overworked and underpaid but because they have to complete 24 months of work within 3 years just to apply for residency status, they will put up with it,” says Alatiit. “It’s the fault of the “live-in” aspect of the LCP. So we’re actually saying scrap the program because if it isn’t “live-in” then it’s not that program.”

Alatiit and the other campaign members are organizing a Canada-wide day of protest in support of Salvador, this Thursday October 19th. Montreal’s demonstration will be at Place Guy Favreau from 4:00-6:30 pm. They hope to reverse her deportation order so that she can stay with her son.

Unfortunately, the federal government doesn’t seem ready to hear their critiques of the LCP. Thériault states that no changes are planned for the LCP, not even a re-evaluation of the program’s impact. This August, several Canadian Filipino activists insisted on meeting Elinor Kaplan, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, to discuss their concerns. Her response: “I value the program and I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize it. I will not examine the LCP.”
Pauline Hwang lives in Montreal, Canada and is a member of the Shakti women of colour collective, FTAA-Alert, and Colours of Resistance. She may be reached at