When Hessed Torres arrived in Canada last September, she felt that her future was fairly assured.
As a live-in caregiver, she would have to remain employed with a family for two years. Then the former Manila resident could apply to become a permanent resident, putting her on a path to eventual citizenship.
"I have a child of my own back home," Torres told the Georgia Straight. "She actually turned four last October—a month after I left—so I missed her birthday. I'm doing this for my daughter and for my mom who is actually retired now. Due to the economic situation in the Philippines, people can't rely on pensions."
But Torres, who was trained as a registered nurse in the Philippines, was thrown for a loop when her job in Canada didn't work out and the federal government overhauled the program.
Since November 30, caregivers are no longer required to live with their employers. But now, they fall under the temporary foreign worker program. And before they can be hired, employers must apply for a labour market impact assessment, aka an LMIA, before a temporary foreign worker can be hired.
"A lot of families are looking for caregivers and nannies like me," Torres said. "The problem is due to the changes, we can't easily get employment. It takes about six months to get an LMIA."
Vancouver-Kensington NDP MLA Mable Elmore told the Straight that the previous system provided a pathway for caregivers like Torres to become Canadian citizens. Temporary foreign workers, on the other hand, are only allowed to remain in Canada for four years and then must leave for four years before returning.
"We're moving away from a model based on permanent immigration," Elmore said. "We've seen a shift where the majority of people coming into our country are on a temporary status."
Elmore said that under the new program, caregivers can enter the country in two streams:
• They are temporary foreign workers hired by families with children.
• They are temporary foreign workers hired for high medical needs.
Elmore noted that 2,750 people in each category are allowed to apply to become permanent residents. All the rest are out of luck.
"If they're unsuccessful in getting into one of the streams, they're going to have to leave for four years."
In addition, Elmore claimed that 97 percent of applications for labour market impact assessments have not been approved since the start of this year. She said that families need caregivers but they're facing a great deal of difficulty because of the backlog.
"They’re getting the runaround because the government is not approving these LMIAs,” she said.
Today, Elmore and Torres joined advocates for caregivers at a news conference at the B.C. Teachers' Federation head office in Vancouver.
One of the speakers, Natalie Drolet of the West Coast Domestic Workers' Association, said that the caregivers used to come to Canada and endure family separation for up to seven years because they knew that they could eventually apply to become permanent residents. That's no longer the case.
"Without this automatic right to have their applications for PR processed by the federal government, then the temporary foreign worker program is actually a disincentive for new caregivers to come to Canada," Drolet said.
She added that families are being assessed a $1,000 fee for each LMIA application.
"In some cases, the costs are borne by the caregivers themselves," Drolet said. "Clients are afraid of leaving employers in abusive situations because if they quit, they are not eligible for employment insurance and they know that there will be a delay of six months for a new work permit. And they can't simply afford to be out of work and potentially homeless for that period of time."
Torres nearly burst into tears when she spoke at the news conference, saying if it weren't for the support group Migrante B.C. and Elmore, she might be homeless.
"I came to Canada to be employed because back home there wasn't employment for me as a registered nurse," she said. "So I'm here in another country unemployed just like I was back home."
She pointed out that there are many families who need her and her friends to work for them to provide childcare and care for those with special medical needs. And she found an employer who was willing to hire her.
"The problem is what am I going to do during the time that I don't have an LMIA?" Torres asked. "What am I supposed to do for the next six months?...If I even work outside the caregiver program, that's a cause for me to be deported."
She ended her comments with a plea to the government to allow her an opportunity to work.
"It's not just us caregivers that are affected," she said. "It's the Canadian families that need us to work for them."
Elmore said that she will hold meetings in communities across B.C. to draw more attention to this issue. In addition, she plans to introduce a private member's bill in the next session of the legislature to follow the lead of the Manitoba government, which requires employers to be licensed and to post a bond of $10,000.
"If there are violations that are found against an employer, workers would have access to that," Elmore said.
On Saturday (May 30), Mable Elmore will host a forum on the caregiver program from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Semiahmoo Library at 1815 152 Street in South Surrey.