Written by Ysabel Espina
With Canada’s aging population, and a high percentage of households with two adults in the workforce, it is not surprising that the demand for caregivers for both the young and the elderly has drastically increased. The need to find people to help care for elders and the young has extended beyond the local labour pool and into foreign countries. Each year, Canada brings in numerous individuals (mostly women) to fill this demand through its Live-In-Caregiver Program. This is an initiative designed to match the specific demands of families for caregivers with the skills of those in other countries who may be looking to live and work in Canada. This program has brought many Filipino women to Toronto to help local families. Many of those women, and their families, have become permanent members of the city’s social fabric.
In the 1980s, many Filipino women came to Canada to work as caregivers. An unstable political climate in the Philippines made emigration attractive in that period, as did economic realities. Some women who came to Canada had college or university degrees, but unable to find employment at home in their field, chose to become caregivers abroad. A steady income in Canada offered a critical means of support for their families in the Philippines. In fact, in some Filipino families working abroad as a caregiver was an established career path, with mothers, aunts and sisters all having experience working abroad. Equally important for many, becoming a caregiver offered the hope of a better life in a new country, with the opportunity to become Canadian citizens and to relocate families to Canada.
In some parts of Toronto, it is a common sight to see Filipino caregivers with the children of local families, and it is important to recognize the value of this work and its effect on the city. Caregivers play an important role for local families. Given the common reality of two income families and the scheduling demands on working parents, caregivers help raise children and care for the elderly, performing roles that were once allocated to family members. Caregivers, including many Filipino women, have thus not only filled a labour demand, but have helped to build and maintain the primary social unit of the family.
Caregivers of children, in particular, have had a major influence on the development and socialization of those in their care– an influence that can last a life time. As one would expect, Filipino caregivers have often woven elements of their culture into their work, whether through the singing of folksongs or the cooking of Filipino dishes. In many circumstances, they have been the pioneers of cultural pluralism, bringing different cultural perspectives and insights into otherwise culturally isolated homes.
Retaining close relationships with family in the Philippines is often a critical priority in the lives of Filipino caregivers. “Balikbayan” boxes are an important part of those relationships. These are collections of canned goods, toys, clothes and shoes for family back home, and are a gesture of the caregiver’s commitment to improving the lives of others.
Migrant caregivers, including those from the Philippines, face particular challenges, rendered more complicated by temporary work contracts. Too often, the line between paid and unpaid work begins to dissolve because the caregivers usually live with their employer and host family. Exploitation of their labour, whether deliberate or not, is a common issue. Addressing it, however, is difficult. Caregivers have often feared provoking any conflict that may result in the termination of their contract, and therefore, the end of their ability to apply for permanent residency.
Filipino caregivers, in particular, have managed to improve employment conditions for all caregivers in Canada. They challenged a stipulation in the government-sponsored caregivers program that required caregivers to pass a second medical exam in order to become permanent residents in Canada. They have also pushed for clarity regarding working hours and pay, access to healthcare and more security regarding their immigration status. A primary example of these efforts was the work of the Coalition of Visible Minority Women in the 1980s. One of its founding members was a Filipino-Torontonian named Carmencita Hernandez and she played a prominent role in the implementation of programs that allowed immigrant women to practice their profession in the country. The coalition fought hard to improve the lives of caregivers and advocated for their right to stay in Canada after their contracts. Their motto was “Good enough to care for your baby, good enough to stay in Canada”.
The women of the Philippines who have chosen the caregiver path have displayed courage on their journey. They have contributed significantly to the continued growth of the Filipino community in Toronto, including as sponsors of other family members. Equally important, they have contributed to the health, stability, and development of many Toronto families. Their hard work, determination, commitment to family and focus on the future has shaped the city we inhabit today.
Interviews with Melissa Gaytano and Carl Francis Diaz
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.