18 Jan Caring for Canada

By: Dr. Denise L. Spitzer

In the summer of 2015, Dr. Denise L. Spitzer joined the COA team in Manila to interview caregivers for her research on the Live-In Caregiver program. Here are her thoughts on the program.

In private homes around the world, foreign workers can be found doing housework and caring for children, the elderly, and the infirm. Depending upon the country of employment, foreign domestic care workers encounter different working and living arrangements and are positioned in different legal frameworks, which sometimes blur the boundaries between legal and illegal work. Most commonly, legally engaged foreign domestic caregivers are only granted temporary worker status, are required to leave behind family members, and eventually must return to their home countries.

Since 1992, Canada has offered a pathway for permanent resettlement, family reunification, and eventual citizenship for foreign domestic caregivers through its Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP)[1] – the most recent iteration of domestic worker immigration schemes for nearly 100 years.[2] Canada’s aging population and lack of flexible, publicly available care services, along with women’s increased participation in the labour market, have meant that more Canadians are relying on paid family caregivers. Well over 50,000 women and men have come to Canada under the auspices of the L/CP since its inception — the vast majority hailing from the Philippines.  Successful applicants must have at least a high school education, although in reality 63% have completed a Bachelor’s degree or higher,[3] speak one of Canada’s official languages, possess education or experience as a caregiver and have a job offer in hand. The paucity of stable, remunerative work in the Philippines, the government’s economic reliance on labour migrants, and the desire to contribute to household coffers and offer a better life to their children, impels Filipino women and men to join the L/CP.

While employed under the L/CP, workers are not allowed to take on any additional paid labour nor are they able to bring along family members. And although they may change employers, doing so involves a bureaucratic process that many would prefer to avoid as waiting for a new work permit may delay the process of applying for permanent residency status or risk failure to complete the program in the allotted time, which leads to automatic deportation. As a result, workers may remain with problematic employers.

Problems with employers may arise when workers are not paid the amounts designated in the contracts or compelled to take on unpaid overtime. Caregivers who reside with their employers may contend with little privacy, lack of control over their living space, the potential for abuse, and unceasing demands from employers. As Willow[4] shared:

The word stress just came very clear to my mind here in Canada. In the Philippines, it’s as if there is no stress. We are very happy though it’s a poor country. We are very happy, as if you don’t understand the word stress.

Even with the kindest of employers, foreign caregivers are beset with stressors including concerns over the financial conditions and well-being of their family at home, unfamiliarity with Canadian society, juggling the demands of work, worrying about applying for permanent residency status, and a lack of social support. That said, workers focus on completing the requirements of the Program in the shortest amount of time possible in order to apply for permanent residency status, be reunited with their families, and begin to create what they hope is a better life for themselves and their children.

Ms. Denise Spitzer (left), Ms. Cecilia Leung (COA Facilitator for Caregivers – middle) and a COA Caregiver Participant after a session held in Manila, Philippines (November 2014).

Those who have been granted access to permanent residency status often find that the credentials they earned overseas are not valued in Canada. Moreover, employers demand that applicants possess “Canadian experience”, yet their years of work in Canada under the L/CP are unrecognized. As a result, care workers are often required to take on multiple poorly-paid jobs in order to support themselves and their families, often sacrificing their own dreams for further education or to re-establish themselves in their former professions.

Once their family members are able to join them in Canada, many former L/CP workers experience conflicting emotions. They are of course thrilled to be reunited with their children and/or spouse, but are also under great pressure to make ends meet financially, and to help their family members integrate into Canadian society. Moreover, years of separation take their toll on family relationships. As Annie said:

We are like strangers. […] My children are growing up without me and I am not there when they are sick. It’s been eight years that I’ve been away. [5]

Regardless of these challenges, many former L/CP workers manage to carve out a place for themselves in the Canadian society. They have re-created community, which not only helps to sustain current and former foreign care workers, but which in turn reaches out to newcomers to the Program as well. Importantly, by caring for children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, these workers, whose efforts often go unrecognized, contribute substantially to the health and well-being of the Canadian populace.



[1] Modified in late 2014 to the Caregiver Program (CP) when it ceased to be mandatory to reside with one’s employer, I use L/CP to refer to these interrelated programs. The shift to the CP also brought changes to the relative certainty of obtaining permanent residency status after completing the Program.

[2] Spitzer, D. L. and Torres, S. (2008) Gender-Based Barriers to Settlement and Integration for Live-In Caregivers: A Review of the Literature. CERIS Working Paper No. 71. Toronto: CERIS.

[3] Kelly, P., Park, S, de Leon C. and Priest, J. (2011) Profile of Live-In Caregiver Immigrants to Canada, 1993-2009. Toronto: Toronto Immigrant Employment Data Initiative.

[4] All names are pseudonyms.

[5] Spitzer, D. L. and Torres, S.. (2014). Familiar Strangers: Migrant Family Reunification in Canada. Report for the United Nations North American Experts’ Group Meeting, Mexico City, Mexico, May 2014.