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.
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.
“Because the work of in-home caregivers — other than licensed nurses — is classified as non-professional, it’s particularly important to have a program like this in place as they are not eligible to transition to permanent residence under the regular federal and provincial economic programs,” says Carvajal, a partner with Desloges Law Group.
“However, it’s still too early to tell where the government did well and falls short,” he says.
“At this point, we know the government will be introducing two new five-year pilots later this year, but we don’t know much about the requirements under these programs and whether they will be as restrictive as the current pilots set to expire in November. I think we will need to reassess later and see the impact that these new programs will have on the vulnerability of foreign workers.”
Carvajal says some of the details sound very promising.
“One is that there will be an opportunity for caregivers to change employers within the same occupation should their job in Canada come to an end prior to completing the requisite work experience for permanent residence,” he says.
“This is a very important change since the current program involves employer-specific work permits which make it difficult for a caregiver to switch employers if they are experiencing harsh conditions or are terminated abruptly.”
Carvajal is also pleased that the pilots will allow caregivers to bring dependents with them, through open work permits for spouses and study permits for children.
“That will certainly improve the experience for caregivers in Canada while they are working prior to obtaining the permanent residence,” he says.
The government also introduced the Interim Pathway for Caregivers, available between March 4 and June 4, 2019, which allows them to apply for permanent residence under more flexible requirements than other programs currently available, Carvajal explains.
“For once,” he says, “the amount of work experience and education level that must be demonstrated to apply for permanent residence is lower, so it’s a great opportunity for many caregivers with at least one year of full-time work experience.”
Carvajal says lowering some education and language requirements under the Interim Pathway “could mean the government will lower them under the new five-year pilot programs that will be introduced later this year. However, we will have to wait and see.”
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.''
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.
– with files from AdvocateDaily.com
© 2019 The Canadian Press