Victory for our nannies
April 03, 2009
Ontario will crack down on unscrupulous recruitment agencies in the wake of a Star investigation into widespread exploitation of foreign caregivers.
In a surprise announcement at Queen's Park yesterday, Labour Minister Peter Fonseca said his government intends to license Ontario's vast and unregulated nanny recruitment industry, ban placement fees charged to foreign caregivers, create a hotline to receive complaints of abuses and begin "targeted enforcement" of agencies that breach labour laws.
"These stories of exploitation of vulnerable workers in Ontario are very disheartening," Fonseca said yesterday. "Many of these temporary workers devote their lives to caring for our loved ones ... The province will move to ensure that the rights of caregivers working in Ontario are respected."
Fonseca hopes to have legislation in place before the end of the year.
Toronto nanny advocate Pura Velasco pumped her fists in the air and shouted, "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" when she heard the news.
Velasco, a 59-year-old Filipina and former caregiver, has been fighting for nannies' rights for 20 years.
The Star investigation found many of the province's 8,000 live-in caregivers paid agencies thousands of dollars for jobs in Ontario that don't exist. In some cases, the caregivers have their passports seized by their agencies and are forced to work illegally in menial jobs to pay off hefty placement fees.
After the Star series ran nearly three weeks ago, Fonseca initially said his government had no plans to tighten provincial laws around the nanny recruitment industry.
"The federal government, as an umbrella for temporary foreign workers, is the right level of government to address what is seen as a very complex and difficult thing," he said at the time.
Yesterday, Fonseca did an abrupt about-face.
"My ministry will continue to move forward with a made-in-Ontario solution, Mr. Speaker, to weed out the unscrupulous agencies," he said in the Legislature yesterday. In an interview, Fonseca said a chat last week with federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney prompted him to take action.
"He could not give me assurances that he could fix a flawed and broken federal program and so we took it on ourselves to ... protect Ontario workers," Fonseca said.
In an interview yesterday, Kenney said Fonseca is "muddying jurisdictional waters." While he acknowledges problems with the Live-in Caregiver Program at the federal level, he says federal responsibilities around processing approvals for foreign caregivers have nothing to do with the abuse of caregivers once they arrive here.
"They are two separate issues," he said.
Kenney said his ministry has begun a review of the program and expects to announce reforms in the first half of this year. One idea on the table is a publicly available blacklist of unscrupulous recruiters.
"I think you need a sanction against abusive (agencies) and employers. It seems to me that's a sensible sanction."
Velasco, head of Caregivers Support Services, was thrilled to hear the protections she has been seeking for 20 years are finally coming.
"My God, this has been so long in coming," she said, as she listened to a recording of Fonseca's announcement.
Catherine Manuel, a Filipina nanny who came to Toronto to look after an 8-year-old boy and instead wound up working at a bed and breakfast in Central Ontario, was elated.
"This is great," said Manuel, who went public with her ordeal in a Star story last fall. "Nobody should ever have to go through what I went through."
Joelina Maluto, a mother of four, took a similar stance earlier this year by going public with allegations of abuse at the hands of a Thornhill recruiter who took her passport upon arrival and pressured her to work illegally. She never met the employer who sponsored her to enter Canada.
"I'm very happy. I hope Canada will become an example for the whole world."
New Democratic MPP Cheri DiNovo called yesterday's announcement a "victory."
"We're pleased that the government has finally listened," she said. "(The Star) has done a great bit to push the government."
Fonseca agreed the issue triggered strong public reaction.
"A lot of our constituency offices have received calls, emails and letters from community-minded individuals. People don't want to see abuses. They want to see workers in Ontario treated with dignity and fairness."
Nanny recruiters were licensed in Ontario until 2001, when the Mike Harris Conservative government deregulated agencies – a move that many say opened the industry up to widespread abuses.
"Agencies absolutely need to be cleaned up," said Tova Rich, owner of Family Matters Caregivers Inc., a Toronto nanny placement agency. "There are greedy people who came in and exploited these girls. I've thought for a long time they should license this. It's become a shady industry that brings the rest of us down."
Rich charges nannies $2,800 for the work her agency does to arrange their immigration and jobs in Canada.
"We charge a fee because we work really hard for the girls. You're a matchmaker. You have to work for both sides."
Charles MacPherson, president of Charles MacPherson Associates, a Toronto company that places nannies, butlers and chefs with local families, says his 13-year-old agency has never charged placement fees to nannies.
"That's double-dipping. I don't understand how you can take money from both parties. ... I've seen a lot of horror stories out there."
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