Juana Rodriguez, 40, is a picture of composure as she narrates the ordeal of changing beds, walking the dogs and performing every job other than what she had been hired for: a nanny to two kids. But her voice falters and tears well up in her eyes as she recounts the epitaph hurled at her by her employer's eight-year-old son.
"He called me 'Stupid' and his mother did not say a word. I could not take this insult. Back home, I was very popular with kids and they all adored me," says this former teacher from the Philippines, one among thousands of Filipinas who arrive in Canada to work as nannies.
What Rodriguez experienced is not unique. Lured by the promise of probable citizenship under Canada's Live-in Caregiver programme, many Filipinas leave behind their families to work as caregivers (including as nannies and care-providers to the elderly) sending remittances back home that not only support their own families but boost the country's economy. Under the caregiver programme, after working as live-in caregivers for two years, workers may apply for landed immigration status. It is estimated that overseas Filipinos, particularly women working as domestic workers, send over $8 billion as annual remittances.
A large number of these workers are in Canada. More than 7,000 Filipinas arrive in this country each year under the federal government's live-in caregiver programme. It is a dream many are willing to risk everything for.
"I know many nannies that paid over $5,000 to employment agencies to help them find a job in Canada," says Rodriguez. She, however, counts herself lucky as her Canada-based cousin found her employment. And that is how last summer she left her husband and three children behind to work in Canada. As the aircraft hovered over Toronto's Pearson airport, Rodriguez recalls the palpable excitement. "I thought I was so lucky to be here. Lots of people apply and pay money, but here I was with a job in hand and a cousin to navigate me. I wanted to come here because it is a good country and there are lots of opportunities, not only for you but your whole family," she says.
However, within a week, new realities surfaced. Though hired as a nanny, the slightly-built former-teacher was mopping floors, walking three dogs ("they were so much bigger than me!" she exclaims), gardening and so on. Added to this, every meal she ate was subject to scrutiny. A veil of sorrow clouds Rodriguez's face as she recalls the employer complaining that she ate big meals. "And all I had was an egg sandwich," she smiles ruefully.
After a few months, Rodriguez mustered enough courage to speak to her cousin and quit her job. She subsequently found employment with a South Asian couple and is very happy with her current job. "They take good care of me. I was lucky I had someone to go to. But I know there are many who continue to work in difficult situations because they do not want to jeopardize their future," she says.
Agatha Mason agrees. The Executive Director of Intercede, an organization that works for the rights of domestic workers, caregivers and newcomers, reels off instances where workers such as Rodriguez are subjected to cheating, abuse and insecurity. Mason has received several complaints from nannies, who are told on their arrival in Canada that sometimes left high and dry, after being told that someone else has been hired in their place. In the absence of any regulations governing the recruiting agencies, observes Mason, the nannies are left to fend for themselves.
In fact, many women often borrow or mortgage their property to raise the agency's fee, which runs into a couple of thousands of dollars. "With so much at stake, should it come as a surprise that they put up with abuse and insecurity to hold on to their jobs?" remarks Rodriguez.
Celina Bautista is a testimony to this. She came to Canada in 1997 to work for an affluent family in Ontario. Paid a wage of $5 per hour, she was responsible for looking after three children, cooking meals for the entire family, and doing all the housekeeping. "Often," she says, "I would be with the children until midnight while the parents worked late or were out with friends." And, she was not paid for overtime.
Bautista, later, learned from a friend that she was being grossly underpaid. Nothing changed after she talked to her employers. Months away from completing the LCP (Live-In Caregiver Programme), she did not want to jeopardize her relationship with her employers. "I couldn't do anything because I needed my landed [immigration] status so I had to stay there," she says.
As recently as six months ago, Toronto newspapers flashed the story of Catherine Manuel, who came to Canada as a live-in nanny to care for eight-year-old Brent of Toronto. Manuel was promised about $420 a week to care for young Brent, with weekends and holidays off. Instead, she was underpaid and worked "morning, noon and night" as a cleaner, servant and handy-woman. Young Brent and his mother never surfaced - perhaps they existed only on paper. The agency that brought her over to Canada said they worked on the basis of papers provided to them, but could not help Manuel. Moved her by her story, many Canadians came forward with job offers.
But not everyone is lucky or has the courage to quit. Geraldine Pratt, a Geography professor at the University of British Columbia, has researched the situation of Filipino domestic workers in Vancouver, in collaboration with the Vancouver-based Filipino Workers Centre. According to Pratt, the dissolution of boundaries between home and workplace created by the live-in requirement can lead to added stress for domestic workers. "Because the nanny lives inside the house, she can't quite escape from the demands of the family," Pratt said in an interview.
Mason attests to this and says this situation makes it easy for employers to stretch the workday or increase the workload. In more severe cases, she says, the live-in situation has created conditions for physical, sexual, and verbal abuse to occur.
Pratt's research has also focused on how Filipino nannies are perceived in comparison to nannies from Europe or Australia. She noted a difference in wages and in what is asked of the nanny. "They're treated much more like servants than the classic au pair," said Pratt.
Mason says the live-in requirement of the programme makes it difficult for the government to regulate what happens in the home. Rodriguez thanks her stars for landing her current job. It pays for her three children's education at a private school and the hiring of a nanny back home to take care of them.
All this comes at a price though. "I miss my children, my home," she says. It is especially hard during special occasions, such as their birthdays or Christmas. "Last year (on Christmas), my friend and I went to a shopping mall, and after coming out we cried our hearts out," she smiles sadly. Her plans to travel home this year for Christmas came to a naught as her work permit extension did not come in time.
But she looks forward to the day when she will sponsor her family to come over to Canada and start a new life there. She also plans to upgrade her skills so that she can eventually step out of a nanny's shoes. Says she, "This is a land of opportunity and I hope to make the best use of it."
(Names of all the nannies have been changed on request.)