Vancouver human trafficking trial sheds light on caregivers’ precarious working conditions
Ryan Newell discusses the exploitative conditions endemic to Canada’s Live-in Caregiver Program
A Vancouver couple is facing charges of human trafficking under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act for allegedly bringing their Filipina nanny, Leticia Sarmiento, to Canada illegally and forcing her to work long hours for low wages. If convicted, Franco Orr and Nicole Huen could face a hefty seven figure fine, imprisonment for life, or both. The trial raises key questions about the exploitative conditions endemic among workers in the federal government’s Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP).
While the allegations have yet to be proven and the couple’s defence lawyer has raised questions during cross-examination about the veracity of some of the details of the caregiver’s story, the types of allegations Sarmiento has made are far from unprecedented among live-in caregivers brought to Canada. Rather, the working conditions that Sarmiento describes — 16 hour days, seven days per week, for much less than minimum wage — are disturbingly common among workers attempting to complete the 24 month period in order to qualify for permanent residency. Similar allegations were leveled in a 2011 lawsuit for nearly $200,000 in unpaid wages and wrongful dismissal damages by Brampton live-in caregiver Lilliane Namukasa.
Many critics, including caregiver advocacy organizations like the Caregivers’ Action Centre, have long argued that the LCP is structured in such a way as to produce the kind of exploitative conditions that Sarmiento has described. Caregivers are nominally entitled to protection under remedial statutes like provincial employment standards legislation and human rights codes. However, because their pathway to permanent residency is tied to their continued employment, many caregivers find it nearly impossible to enforce their rights under such statutes for fear that doing so will result in reprisal and the derailment of their hopes for immigration status. As Sabaa A. Khan writes, “[caregivers’] real capacity to address workplace injustice is virtually nil, as access to legal protection is inherently tied to a risk of deportation.”
It’s not just activists and academics who have pointed to deep flaws in the way that the LCP is structured. In a 2009 report, the Auditor General offered the following insights:
There is a risk that live-in caregivers may tolerate abuse, poor working conditions, and poor accommodations so as not to lose the opportunity to become permanent residents. The program’s requirement that the caregiver reside in the employer’s home can put them particularly at risk. A number of [Citizen and Immigration Canada] internal reports, some dating back as far as 1994, raised serious concerns about abuse of this program by employers and immigration consultants, as well as risks to individuals.
It is yet to be seen what will become of the Vancouver couple currently on trial for human trafficking charges. To the best of my knowledge, a conviction has never successfully been secured against an LCP employer for human trafficking under the IRPA. However, regardless of its eventual outcome, the case draws attention to the unjust conditions that many caregivers face inside Canadian homes as a result of the precariousness that it is built into the very structure of the LCP. As one manifestation of the power dynamics more generally associated with temporary immigration policies, the LCP problem has been studied, and studied again. The question is: how many stories like Sarmiento’s will it take to compel change?