Migrant Care Workers in Canada: Policy Changes and Future Directions

Nicole Winger

As of February 2018, Canada’s migrant Caregiver Program (CP), a five-year pilot from 2014 to 2019, has been in the news with the announcement of its current program review. At the crux of this review is how the federal government will proceed with permanent residency eligibility for migrant care workers. In conducting this program review, the federal government should recognize the importance of transnational care work by ensuring proper labour standards and a clear pathway to permanent residency and through facilitating faster family reunification.

What is the Caregiver Program?

Canada’s CP, which was established in November 2014, largely evolved from the Live-in-Caregiver Program (LCP), which was in place from 1992 to 2014. The Live-in-Caregiver Program facilitated the movement of migrant labourers, mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia and the Caribbean, to provide care for children or adults with medical needs, while living full-time in their employer’s home. Care workers were paired with one specific employer and were required to work for 24 months within a period of four successive years before applying for permanent residency for themselves and their immediate family.

In 2014, the Conservative government amended the LCP, renaming it the CP, and implemented several notable changes. First, the “live-in” requirement was removed to reduce caregiver exploitation. Second, the language and post-secondary education requirements to be eligible for permanent residency were tightened. Third, the number of permanent residency approvals was capped at 5,500 per year, in comparison to an average of 10,740 per year under the previous program. These changes have only served to mount further socioeconomic obstacles for care workers to attain permanent resident status.

In February 2018, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) announced that it would be reviewing the current caregiver pilot program to assess its long-term feasibility. IRCC noted that all current migrant care workers would only have until November 29, 2019 to attain their required 24-months of work experience and apply for permanent residence – a challenging or impossible requirement to meet for newly admitted care workers that arrived in late 2017 or early 2018. If the CP is removed, care workers will only be able to enter the country as guest workers through the Temporary Foreign Workers Stream, which will only heighten the precarious nature of care work. It would also signal, more largely, the cultural devaluation of care labour and its perceived disposability. The lack of direct communication in relaying the news of the program review – it was quietly noted on the IRCC website on Saturday, February 3, 2018 – has also been commented as being off-hand de-valuation of the program.

Considerations for the future of the Caregiver Program

There are a number of considerations the federal government should keep in mind in evaluating the future of the CP. Demographic changes related to an aging population, the onset of the baby boomers’ retirement from the labour force and increased participation of women outside of traditional domestic service roles, have created challenges in providing care for older adults with medical needs. In addition, Canada’s lack of a national child care plan in the foreseeable future, coupled with the demands of the flex economy, have made it more difficult to access childcare services. With reluctance from Canadian-born workers or newly-arrived immigrants from developed countries to provide full-time care work, accepting migrant care workers from less developed countries seems like an ideal long-term and sustainable solution.

However, IRCC should consider the ways in which its policies can reframe the value of migrant care labour, both politically and culturally. The federal government needs to think of migrant care workers less as low-skilled or low-valued workers, and more as high-value individuals that are a part of a globalized chain of caregiving. This globalized care chain can be thought of as a series of interconnected, personal links that arise between women care workers across the globe. For example, when a mother from the Philippines enters Canada as a migrant care worker, this creates a care deficit for her family back home – her family must find another way to accommodate the care needs of her children, elderly parent or other dependents. Often, each care gap is filled by the labour of another woman who is of lower socioeconomic standing. Adopting a gender-based and transnational lens in conducting the CP review would account for these shared challenges that women care workers face in migrating to provide care services.

Other important considerations include ensuring that wage rates are sustainable for just living conditions in Canada, bearing in mind the fact that most care workers send remittances back to their own families. Improving workers’ access to digital support resources during the application process and once working, would also help them to transition and integrate in the most accessible way. It is also important to consider investing in training and continuing resources for employers to mitigate exploitation and increase their cultural understanding and sensitivity related to hiring a migrant care worker.

In addition, a timely family reunification strategy is key in supporting women care workers who leave their families behind to work in Canada and in attracting skilled care workers to Canada. The federal government should also consider changes and improvements to the caregiver program such as reducing work permit wait times between care jobs (which in turn increases the 24-month work requirement needed to apply for permanent residency) and reducing the protracted wait times for familial application approval.

Providing a universal pathway to permanent residency for workers and their families should be the bottom-line consideration in this program review. The need for migrant care workers to fill the care void in Canada continues to grow, and it only makes sense to account for the high value migrant workers bring to these demanding jobs by rewarding them and their families with an accessible pathway to permanent residency

Nicole Winger is currently a Master of Public Policy candidate (Year 1) at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. She holds a Master of Arts in American Studies and a Bachelor of Arts Honors in Political Science, both from Western University. Nicole is interested in the areas of inclusive and equitable policy-making for marginalized and discriminated groups within Canada; particular policy areas of interest include: ethnic and race relations, indigenous relations, and refugee and immigration affairs. Her hobbies include teaching yoga, distance running/races, travelling and museum-going.