© Dave Stewart/The Guardian
Honeylyn Gubalane, left, wants to see changes in Canada’s temporary foreign worker program that include putting an end to tying their work permits directly to their employers. Gubalane arrived in Charlottetown nine years ago as a migrant worker and is now a permanent resident. Josie Baker of the Cooper Institute organized a press conference in Charlottetown on Wednesday where a newly formed national coalition (each province has a branch) is lobbying the federal government for change.
A woman who came to P.E.I. as a migrant worker nine years ago says it’s time to stop the practice of tying temporary foreign workers to their employers.
Honeylyn Gubalane is a permanent Canadian citizen now.
But she originally landed in Charlottetown from the Philippines as a live-in caregiver, an aspect of the temporary foreign worker program which is designed to bring women from primarily Asian countries to Canada to work as live-in nannies for children or caregivers for elders or adults with disabilities.
As the name implies, women employed under the program are required to live in their employers’ homes.
Gubalane said she was paid minimum wage, with an amount deducted from her pay to cover rent, food, phone and Internet use at the employer’s discretion.
“I had to live with a family 24-7. There are days when it was OK. You are living in someone’s home,’’ Gubalane said.
“It would be eight hours and you’re off but you’re not really off because you live there. If people need some assistance during the evening or at night you can’t really say no and not be available.’’
On Wednesday, Gubalane attended a press conference in Charlottetown where a national migrant worker coalition called on the new Liberal government to move to a single tier immigration system based on permanency and family reunification as a way to ensure decent work for all.
While the coalition is national, the press conference in Charlottetown featured representatives from local organizations. There were five other press conferences held across the country in support of the national initiative.
The coalition also wants to see Canada move from work permits that tie them to their employer to open work permits and the four-year limit on workers’ ability to stay lifted.
“You are here in a foreign country and you’re at the mercy of your employer. It feels kind of hard.’’
Gubalane eventually became a citizen. She’s taking the nursing program at UPEI and working at a nursing home.
The local coalition includes representatives with the Cooper Institute, the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), P.E.I. Food Security Network, Council of Canadians and Women’s Network P.E.I.
According to the Cooper Institute, there were close to 1,000 migrant workers in P.E.I. last year.
Josie Baker of the Cooper Institute said it is possible for migrant workers to change employers it is a difficult process and costly.
“When you have policies that, in essence, hold part of the workforce as captive to one employer it opens the door for abuse, lower salaries and degraded work conditions,’’ Baker said.
Sara Roach-Lewis of Women’s Network P.E.I. spoke about her family’s relationship with migrant workers.
“They would have made such wonderful long-term additions to our community as hard-working, positive, creative and loving people,’’ said an emotional Roach-Lewis. “Despite our efforts, they couldn’t immigrate to Canada.’’
The Guardian spoke to two companies that employ migrant workers in P.E.I., neither of which wanted to be quoted for this story.
However, both stressed they turned to the program due to an ongoing labour shortage, follow strict federal rules and regulations and go out of their way to treat all employees with dignity and respect.