Caregivers still vulnerable under new immigration rules, advocates warn

OTTAWA — Migrant workers employed in Canada as caregivers are confused by new changes to immigration programs aimed at them, with many concerned the changes could mean more barriers to obtaining permanent residency.

Last month, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced two new five-year pilot projects on caregiver immigration, which have been billed as a way to allow caregivers to come to Canada with their families and offering them greater opportunity to become permanent residents.

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Groups that represent and work with migrant workers say they welcome many of the announced changes, but questions remain about whether restrictive requirements to achieve permanent residency will remain.

The program allowing temporary foreign workers is meant to help employers fill job vacancies when Canadians are not available. The government is supposed to make sure employers use the program to respond only to real labour shortages, but concerns have been raised repeatedly over the years about migrant workers' being tied to employers who have abused them by making them work long hours, cutting their paycheques with arbitrary fees and offering poor living conditions.

Workers who care for children or frail people can be vulnerable because they labour mainly in private homes, though they aren't the only ones affected.

Kara Manso, the co-ordinator of the Caregivers Action Centre in Toronto, says her office has been flooded with queries from foreign workers looking for more details about whether they will qualify for these new programs.

"They're panicking. They don't know what's going to happen to them and we want to make sure that those people are not isolated," Manso said.

Her group is among a number of grassroots organizations that have long been pushing for migrant workers to be given landed status on arrival in Canada.

Manso herself came to Canada as a caregiver, so she has felt the vulnerability of living without permanent status and the rights and opportunities of other newcomers. Migrant workers in Canada often have little to no access to government-funded settlement services in many provinces. Where services are available, isolation, language and transportation can be barriers to access.

"I have the lived experience being in that situation where you don't know what's going to happen to you. Your life, your personal life, your work life is controlled by an immigration status that is specific to an employer," she said. "We're not asking for special treatment, we're asking for the same rights as everybody else."

Some of the changes announced by the federal department are being applauded — notably one that will see occupation-specific work permits given to caregivers, allowing them to change jobs more easily. Previously, work permits were tied to individual employers, making it difficult for workers to escape if they were being abused or leaving them in limbo if their elderly wards passed away.

Open work permits for spouses or common-law partners are also being welcomed, which will allow migrant workers to bring their families to Canada. This is aimed at ending a long-criticized practice of seeing temporary foreign workers separated from their own children while they care for children in Canada.

But details remain unclear about many aspects of the new caregiver pilot programs. For example, the proposed regulations don't specify how for long the open work permits will be granted for migrant workers in situations of abuse. Questions also remain about whether restrictive language and work-experience requirements for applying for permanent residency will stay in place.

Ottawa has stepped up employer inspections and has been naming and shaming those caught breaking the rules following a host of oversight problems in the temporary foreign worker program, uncovered by former auditor general Michael Ferguson.

But migrant workers remain vulnerable to employer abuse and can lose their legal status and be deported due to language and resource barriers in trying to navigate Canada's immigration system, according to the findings of a forum on migrant-worker issues co-hosted in November by the Canadian Council for Refugees.

Participants in the forum cited concerns over: access to settlement services; predatory recruitment practices, including high fees charged by recruiters; a lack of safe spaces for migrant workers to talk about their experiences; and the "criminalization" of migrant workers who fall out of status due to labour exploitation and are then targeted for deportation by Canada Border Services officers.

The refugee council's executive director Janet Dench says these concerns illuminate the reasons why all migrant workers should be offered the same rights and legal status as other newcomers.

"We continue to need people to fill these positions, and they seem to be committed to giving them options to become permanent residents at the end of their (work permits), but why can't they just be permanent residents on arrival, like other immigrants to Canada?"

The federal government says it is committed to removing barriers to permanent residency, offering better protection for caregivers in the workplace and reuniting more families faster.

Mathieu Genest, the spokesman for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, said full eligibility criteria will be made available closer to the date of the launch of these new pilot programs, whose start dates also remain unclear. He did say that the new programs will feature "standard" criteria for economic-immigration programs, such as minimum education and official-language standards, along with the requirement for the caregiver to gain two years of work experience.

"These criteria have been shown to be critical factors for the successful settlement and establishment in Canada for all new permanent residents, including caregivers."

As for the call to offer permanent residency upon arrival in Canada, Genest said the caregiver programs are "designed to help address specific labour market needs" and that the newly designed programs will offer more certainty to those to those accepted under the program "once they have the necessary work experience."

"We inherited a program that had several shortcomings. We have been committed to consulting with clients to make sure we get this program right and provide caregivers an opportunity to stay in Canada permanently," Genest said.

—Follow @ReporterTeresa on Twitter.

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