Mary Poppins, a fictional character popularized by a 1964 Walt Disney Productions film, is probably the most enduring image of the ideal nanny. Armed with a feather duster, a cheerful disposition and a suitcase full of children’s toys, she represents all the fun, effectiveness and even the serenity of the perfect mother’s helper. But
the fantasy falls far short of reality for many working parents seeking someone to live in their home and help them raise their children—at least 15,000 across Canada. Declared Janet Sherwood, the director of Classic Personnel Ltd., a Vancouver-based nanny service with offices in eight Canadian cities: “If I have a good nanny today, I also have five or six families to send her to. Some people have to wait two or three months for help.”
For parents, live-in help eliminates the daily rush to deliver and pick up their children at day care centres and
schools. And for those who can afford it, a monthly salary of approximately $800 is a reasonable price to pay for a tidy house and supervised children. But hiring a nanny in Canada is difficult. For one thing, most Canadians are not interested in a job which leaves them with about $125 per week after taxes and deductions for room and board. As a result, when would-
be employers fail to find help from newspaper advertisements or word-ofmouth, many turn to professional placement services, which normally charge about $600 for locating a domestic helper from such countries as Britain, Jamaica and the Philippines.
Abuses: Having hired a nanny, many employers find that their problems multiply. Nannies —most of whom are women in their early 20s— often insist on limiting their work to caring for the children and prove reluctant to perform even light household chores. Some nannies find it too
difficult to adjust to a new country and return home within months. And those who stay complain about lack of job security and privacy, low wages and other abuses: parents who sometimes extend their employees’ working hours by arriving home late from work or who expect their nannies to work seven days a week. Declared Susan Maynard, who operates a small nanny-
finding service from her Toronto home: “A lot of families treat their staff appallingly.”
In fact, most Canadians even incorrectly use the word “nanny” as the term for anyone who lives in the home of her employer and helps out with domestic chores. Traditionally, a nanny is a graduate of a recognized course such as Britain’s two-year Nursery Nurses Education Board. Those programs train students specifically to take care of children, and graduates expect to find employers willing to hire them for that alone. Said 33-year-old Celia Tracy, who
came to Canada as a domestic helper 11 years ago and is now a partner in a Toronto-based company that recruits other domestics: “A trained nanny usually will not pick up a cup. They just don’t do housework.”
Most of the so-called nannies in Canada are women who arrive under the Foreign Domestic Movement, a program which the federal government initiated in 1981 in an attempt to fill the need for home child care. Successful applicants, who must be in good health and have some domestic skills, gain landed-immigrant status—provided they agree to work only as livein domestic help for two years. And under terms set out by Canadian Employment and Immigration authorities, families sponsoring a nanny must furnish their employee with a private bedroom—although many provide televisions, telephones, private bathrooms and separate entrances as well. Nannies usually earn the provincial minimum wage. In Ontario that means they receive $827 per month before taxes and a $238 deduction for room and board. In return, they are expected to work 50 hours each week with overtime pay at regular wages for extra work. “That’s pretty good money,” said Tracy. “Not a lot of people who work in offices have $150 left over at the end of every week.”
Harder: Still, even experienced nannies who can command higher salaries say that they work harder than most employees because they live with their employers. Said Sally Cretney, 23, who came to Canada from England four years ago and has lived with five families in the Toronto area: “You never really leave work if you live in. It’s very easy for them to ask you to do something extra and it’s very difficult to say no.” Erika Gosson, 24, emigrated from West Germany more than two years ago and lived with three families in Toronto while working as a nanny. Gosson is currently looking after two children under the age of seven, but she now shares an apartment with her boyfriend. She says that it is difficult to save money, but by living out, she added, her workload has been reduced considerably. Said Gosson: “If you’re living in, you can close your bedroom door, but you’re still on duty.”
In some instances, according to commercial placement officials, domestic helpers have hesitated to demand better working conditions because they
are uncertain about their rights in a new country. “These girls are terrified of rocking the boat,” said Maynard. Added Margot Davis, 33, a Montreal nanny who came to Canada from Britain 11 years ago: “I have Canadian citizenship now, but up until then things weren’t easy. Some people at Immigration want you to know that if they don’t like the way you look, you’ll be on the next plane.”
Demand: At the same time, the steady demand for child-care workers provides a source of employment to women who have entered the country illegally. Some employers overlook the fact that their children’s new nanny may be an illegal immigrant, but Da-
vis notes that women in this position are most vulnerable to abuse. Said Davis: “The girls who are here illegally get paid virtually nothing and their employers can threaten to turn them in if they don’t do as they say.” Added Maynard: “When girls call me seeking work, I tell them to come and visit— and to bring their passport. Many never show up for the interview.”
Many families say that there is a period of adjustment between employer and domestic and that after a few weeks both parties usually know whether there is a problem. And such
veteran employers as Fran Greenbaum, a 39-year-old Toronto market researcher, say that trade-offs are common as parents realize that a nanny who is affectionate and attentive to their children’s needs might also be an indifferent housekeeper and a dreadful cook. Declared Greenbaum, who has hired four nannies during the past 3V2 years to look after her two sons, Matthew, 3, and David, 2: “It’s like getting married again and again and again. The entire process requires a lot of diplomacy.” Another mother, Susan Stoyanovich, a 36-year-old public relations consultant and mother of two boys, aged 9 and 6, complained: “You’re never truly alone and they usually don’t stay very long. That affects the children’s relationship and it takes a while for them to become accustomed to someone new.”
Leap: For employers who use an agency to find a nanny abroad, selecting a suitable candidate is often a leap of faith based largely on a résumé, a photograph, a few letters and the agency’s preliminary screening work. Sometimes the match does not take, and most agencies guarantee that they will find a replacement during the first three months of the yearlong contract. And they advise employers to make the switch as quickly as possible if the arrangement is failing. But Hana Havlicek, president of Selective Personnel in Toronto, one of the largest agencies in the country, says that such failures are relatively rare. According to Havlicek, 12 per cent of the 800 women she places each year have to be replaced—at their or their employers’ request. Said Havlicek: ‘‘The girls don’t change unless the situation is really bad. They are very anxious to make it work.”
Certainly, use of live-in nannies is increasing in Canada. Last year alone, Employment and Immigration Canada officials issued work permits to 5,021 domestics, bringing the number of legal domestics in this country to 14,258. And Employment and Immigration officials predict that the need for imported nannies will not abate as long as Canadians remain unenthusiastic about taking such a job. As a result, the successors to Mary Poppins may soon exercise that bargaining tool to obtain higher wages and better working conditions.
LISA VAN DUSEN
-PAUL BERTON with MIRO CERNETIG in Vancouver, ASHLEY GEDDES in Calgary and LISA VAN DUSEN in Montreal
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