Home Workers To Get Union Help

Home workers to get union help
For $10 a month they'll get a dental plan, legal counselling, insurance and other benefits

Nicholas Keung
Immigration/Diversity Reporter
The Toronto Star
Jun 11, 2008 04:30 AM

(Note: Pinky Paglingayen was asked for a payment of $3,000 by a family of four in Thornhill who sponsored her entry into Canada and then released her from employment after several days. Her next employer, a family of five in Thornhill, did not ask Paglingayen for payment as incorrectly stated in this article. )

An international union has launched an advocacy group to support the tens of thousands of live-in caregivers in Canada and ensure their rights are respected at the hands of abusive employers and recruiters.

At $10 a month for a membership, domestic workers can access discounted legal counselling, insurance and dental plans, as well as accounting and long-distance telephone services, offered by the Independent Workers Association (Home Worker Section), a joint partnership between the United Steelworkers Union and Migrante Ontario, a grassroots advocacy group for migrant workers.

Though the move won't give live-in caregivers the right to collective bargaining or filing grievances against Canadian employers, it is a huge step forward to giving a collective voice to domestic workers who work long hours at low wages with little benefits, and who are often held hostage by employers to maintain immigration status.

“We would like to offer them a helping hand and assist them in lobbying to change government policies, so they can be treated with dignity and respect,” Wayne Fraser, the union's Ontario and Atlantic provinces director, told a news conference yesterday.

The federal live-in caregiver program grants permanent resident status to domestic workers after they complete their three-year assignments and obtain the necessary medical and criminal record clearances.

The nannies are sponsored by employers, with whom they must live and to whom their work permits are tied. Given the live-in nature of the job, they are also on-call after they finish their regular eight-hour shift. Most earn between $8 and $10 an hour.

Currently, there are about 80,000 live-in caregivers in Ontario and another 26,000 in Montreal, according to Connie Sorio, program co-ordinator of the Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, who, with Migrante, approached the union with the idea in January.

“This is something that we have been wanting for a long time,” said Sorio.

Pinky Paglingayen came to Canada from the Philippines in 2005 under the live-in caregiver program and was dismayed when she was asked by her employer, a family of five in Thornhill, to pay $3,000 because they saw it as “a favour” to let her into the country. She said she had no choice but pay it because she wanted to stay.

She moved to work for an Oakville family last year, but was dismissed in December when the employer found out she was pregnant. She is still owed her last paycheque and vacation pay. In March, her Ontario health insurance was cut off because she was on an open work permit and not yet a Canadian permanent resident.

“But I'm lucky. I just got my (landed) status this week, and I immediately went to renew my OHIP,” said the 34-year-old. “We need an association like this to protect our rights.”

Unlike other community groups that are supported by the governments, the live-in caregiver association is fully funded by the union, which allows it to be an independent watchdog.

The association's priorities include:

Reaching out to live-in caregivers to educate them about their rights.
Demanding that the federal government ratify the United Nations Convention on Protection of Rights of All Migrant Workers.
Assisting workers facing the threat of deportation at the whim of abusive employers.
Lobbying for regulations over fly-by-night caregiver recruitment agencies that take advantage of the workers by charging large fees and failing to secure employers.

A similar association formed by the Steelworkers union in 2002 to organize taxi drivers in Quebec has been successful in improving employment standards for the cab industry. That group has become the bargaining and lobbying agent for its 5,000 members.

“Their interests are better represented and they are more listened to by the government,” noted Fraser.