Caregivers and employers tread a fine line over duties
Kathryn Blaze Carlson
Published: Wednesday, May 13, 2009
As Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla faces public allegations of mistreating three former caregivers, nannies and their employers across Canada are privately manouevring their own live-in situations, confronting the often blurry boundaries that separate reasonable job expectations from abusive work conditions.
Indeed, long before the high-profile case made headlines, it was already a much-debated topic of conversation in playgrounds, employment agencies, and online communities divided over what, exactly, being a caregiver entails.
“I get that question on a daily basis,” said Jenny van Eyk, who runs the British Columbia-based agency Supreme Nannies Canada. “There are grey areas because caregivers live where they work, there's no firm start or finish to a day.”
Though caregivers sign a contract outlining what is expected of them, these agreements are often vague and include blanket categories like “light housecleaning” and “laundry.” Whether mopping is considered light housecleaning or whether ironing is considered laundry may seem like a trite distinction, but it is precisely this sort of fine line that employers and their live-in nannies awkwardly tread each day. And celebrities are not exempt: Madonna and Jennifer Lopez recently graced tabloid pages for allegedly overworking their nannies.
Of the roughly 100 caregivers that Supreme Nannies places each year, more than 70 come from abroad as part of Canada's live-in caregiver program. The federal program brings in foreign workers, many of whom then seek permanent residence after working the required two years. Caregivers are paid a minimum hourly wage which varies provincially – Prince Edward Island and British Columbia are among the stingiest at roughly $8 an hour, and Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are the most generous at roughly $10.16.
Many nannies come to Canada after being overworked and underpaid in such places as Hong Kong or Taiwan, which causes a unique set of problems. “A lot of these women have not been treated well by employers in the past, and were looked upon as working machines or slaves,” Ms. van Eyk said. “When they come over here, they overwork themselves, almost out of habit.”
She said she receives a surprising number of calls from employers complaining that their nanny works too hard, without any prompting on their part. Canadian nannies, on the other hand, are far less likely to be overworked or underpaid, she said. “There is definitely a cultural divide among local and foreign nannies. Local caregivers have a different view of what's reasonable.”
For Ms. van Eyk, reasonable caregiver duties include mopping, sweeping, dusting, emptying and loading the dishwasher, cleaning the stove and fridge, preparing meals, and ironing. Meanwhile, an article posted to popular Web site care.com argues that laundry, cooking, and heavy housekeeping are not part and parcel with the job. In the lengthy online discussion that ensued – dozens of parents and nannies weighed in – commenters voiced opinions varying from “nannies are solely dedicated to the direct care of the child, they are not housekeepers,” to “I think it's OK to ask a nanny to do laundry” to “nannies are not mommy-substitutes.”
Just a week before Ms. Dhalla resigned as Liberal labour critic, another impromptu debate broke out at babycenter.com, sparked by a mother named “Tina” who pondered whether it was OK to ask her nanny to vacuum the living room once a week. “When I was a full-time nanny, I wouldn't have minded vacuuming just the living room once a week,” wrote Amanda. Meanwhile, “Mommy of Sammy” said the nanny should only vacuum where the baby crawls.
For Rohan Johnson, a Toronto father of two who recently joined a growing group of parents looking for live-in nannies on popular classifieds site Craigslist, the children, not cleaning, should be the focus of the caregiver's attention. “We wouldn't ask for any vacuuming or sweeping, that's our job,” Mr. Johnson said. “I would never ask a nanny to mow the lawn or shovel the driveway, that has nothing to do with my kids.”
A simple browse through Craigslist's advertisements shows Mr. Johnson, who plans to pay his nanny $9.50 per hour and would either compensate for overtime or offer a day off in lieu of additional pay, is not the norm. In fact, wanted ads varied immensely in terms of pay – especially when it came to how many children or seniors are to be cared for – as well as lists of daily duties and weekly hours.
Another point of contention is what to do when the nanny babysits outside his or her usual hours. “Sometimes it comes up whether the employer should pay the nanny what they would pay an outside babysitter, which is usually less,” Ms. van Eyk said.
Agatha Mason, head of domestic workers rights group Intercede and who fielded the initial call from one of Ms. Dhalla's former caregivers, said long hours without additional pay is the chief complaint among the 80 or so calls she receives each month.
“What makes things grey for people is that duties are simply less clear, there's no human resources office to check in with,” said Ms. Mason, adding that caregivers often stick with otherwise unbearable situations for the sake of acquiring permanent residency.
“I remember telling one woman from Hong Kong that it was not OK to be expected to look after a baby 24/7, and she said she disagreed and that this type of work was normal for her.”
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