When shelter-at-home directives were issued to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Quebec, Rachel, a domestic caregiver from the Philippines, said her employer asked her to stay at their home in a Montreal suburb 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The move was a precaution, and Rachel, whose name has been changed because she fears reprisals, said she understands the need to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. She’s also working for a family who treats her better than the family that employed her when she first came to Canada in 2017. That family forced her to work 11-hour days, gave her little to no privacy, and harshly criticized her, she said.
But the past two months have been difficult. “When you are working, if you’re not with your family, it’s so hard. You are always feeling homesick,” she said.
“Now in this pandemic situation, I feel more homesick than before.”
As Canada continues to grapple with COVID-19, people across the country have celebrated and thanked those labouring on the front lines: doctors, nurses, farm workers, grocery store clerks, cashiers, and many, many others.
But lost in the conversation about “guardian angels” are thousands of migrants like Rachel who are granted work permits to provide in-home care to children, the elderly, and people with disabilities or chronic diseases.
Known as caregivers, these workers must complete 24 months of full-time employment in Canada within a set period before they can apply for permanent residency and bring their families to Canada.
"We are used to being ignored."
Rights advocates say the pandemic has placed these women at heightened risk of exploitation.
“That’s nothing new to us. We are used to being ignored by the public,” said Evelyn Calugay, an executive committee member at Pinay, an organization that defends the rights of Filipino women workers in Quebec, many of whom are domestic caregivers.
Calugay said since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, several caregivers have called her to say they have been forced to live full-time with their employers amid fears they could contract the virus outside the home.
Quebec started reopening businesses and other services this month, but many are concerned that the reopening is premature. The province has recorded more than half of all the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada, and more than 4,000 people have died.
Stuck in their employers’ homes, many caregivers are “feeling isolated,” Calugay said. She said many are working longer hours, and are concerned they won’t get paid for overtime.
“They are feeling unsure,” Calugay said. “They are feeling the abuse of their rights right now, but they cannot complain” for fear of losing their jobs. She said many women do not know what they are entitled to, and employers often take advantage of that.
A mechanism “to let them know their rights” once they arrive in Canada is necessary, Calugay said, because groups like hers can’t advise every caregiver that lands here. “That’s our biggest problem, because we cannot reach out to them as soon as they arrive.”
Abby, 42, came to Canada from the Philippines in December to work as a caregiver after spending over a decade in Singapore. (Her name has also been changed because she fears reprisals.) She typically sleeps at her employer’s house in Montreal during the week, and works 11- to 12-hour days, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of her employer’s children.
Abby said her employer moved to a cottage over an hour outside of Montreal in early March when the pandemic hit and she moved in with them full time. While it was quiet and peaceful there, the 42-year-old Filipino caregiver said the cottage was much bigger than the family’s home, which meant she had more work than usual.
The family came back to Montreal over a week ago, but she still lives with them full time. She said she takes walks to say hello to relatives who live nearby, but otherwise she stays in her room on her days off. COVID-19, she said, “turned (everything) upside down.”
“It’s just really stressful, depressing, everything,” Abby said. But the need to provide for her family back in the Philippines (she has a husband and three children, ages 20, 18 and 17) is what keeps her going.
“This is for my family, so if I go back home, how am I going to support my family, (support) my kids to go to school?” she said.
That fear of speaking out is not new, as sociologists and other rights experts have pointed to systemic problems in the domestic caregiver system for years, including a major power imbalance between employers and employees.
For years, the federal program was known as the Live-in Caregivers Program, and the workers were required to reside in their employer’s home. That requirement was suspended in 2014 after widespread criticism.
Canada admitted nearly 18,500 caregivers and their immediate family members as permanent residents in 2016—and the vast majority (94 percent) were women.
In Quebec, caregivers can be hired through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, and some employers may need a provincial permit to bring them over. The workers can be recruited to care for children, or for people with high medical needs.
Elsa Galerand, a sociology professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) who co-authored a 2015 report on Canada’s caregivers program, said because the work of domestic caregivers is inside the home, it is harder to make sure their rights aren’t being violated.
Migrant caregivers work long hours for low pay (generally minimum wage, which was bumped up to $13.10 this month in Quebec), Galera explained, and the workers’ near-total dependence on their employers raises the potential for exploitation and abuse.
The silence around that abuse belies “absolute contempt” for the women, Galerand said, and COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem.
“It’s as if we assigned a particular category (of people)—migrant women—to a role that no one wants to play, to a job that no one wants to do, in conditions that no one would accept. This immigration program is creating a category of workers that is akin to slaves,” she said.
Normally, Rachel lives with her sister and her sister’s family, and she would take the metro and bus to and from her employer’s home every day. She has her own room and bathroom at her employer’s home, but she said weekends are especially hard these days because she spends them alone in her room.
“I cannot go home to my family, I cannot meet them, I cannot do shopping with them. They (the employer) allow me to go outside just for a walk, but not far from the house,” she said.
Rachel said she is dreaming of the day she will be able to bring her family to Canada, but she has yet to apply for permanent residency. The last time she saw her children—a 20-year-old and an 18-year-old—was in the Philippines in 2018.
“That is my dream,” she said, her voice cracking, about bringing her children to join her in Canada. “I’m sorry. I’m crying now because it’s so hard.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.