As a young girl growing up under a rigid communist regime in Czechoslovakia, she dreamed of freedom and affluence in the West. Now in her mid-20s, the woman (who asked that her identity not be disclosed) has lived for the past year in Toronto—but her dreams have soured. Her visitor’s visa expired last February and she works illegally as a nanny, spending 10 hours a day looking after three children between the ages of eight and 18 and her employer’s fashionable Rosedale home. Her employer, a merchant, pays her $6 an hour, slightly below Ontario’s minimum hourly wage of $6.35. “I would like to do something else,” she says, “but I don’t have any choice.”
Immigration lawyers and women’s groups contend that thousands of women from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia are working illegally in Canada as nannies—many in constant fear of being discovered and deported. They are not covered by government health insurance plans or protected by labor laws. Some endure sexual abuse and employers sometimes simply withhold wages. “Fear is a very big factor with these women,” said lawyer Sheila Cuthbertson of Parkdale Community Legal Services, a Toronto clinic that frequently represents domestic workers. “Employers can threaten them with deportation so they are under a lot of pressure not to complain about wages or working conditions.”
In spite of the risks, illegal domestics advertise for work in newspapers and are frequently hired by parents who cannot find
or afford a legal nanny. Anyone who hires a legal foreign nanny must register as an employer with Revenue Canada. Employers must deduct income tax, unemployment insurance premiums and Canada Pension Plan contributions from the nanny’s salary and send the money to Ottawa. They must also pay health-care premiums and comply with provincial workers’ compensation rules. Said Sharon Minton, owner of Execu-Nannies, a Toronto placement agency: “A nanny working legally costs an employer at least $1,200 a month, as opposed to $500 to $600 a month for someone illegal.”
Immigration authorities say that the number of underground nannies will likely increase because of a tough, new federal program that requires alien domestics to work as live-in nannies for two years if they hope to become landed immigrants. An Employment and Immigration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the government also adopted higher educational standards, requiring prospective immigrant nannies to have the equivalent of a Canadian Grade 12 diploma. The reason: most women who work as nannies eventually apply for permanent residence and look for better jobs. But critics say that putting fresh barriers in the path of immigrant domestics will only encourage illegal ones.
For women’s groups across the country, defending the rights of legal nannies has taken precedence over the problems facing those who are illegal—if only because the illegals are difficult to catch. But as the young woman from Czechoslovakia has discovered, life as an illegal can be frustrating and disconcerting. It means long hours, low pay and—most important of all—putting dreams on hold.
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