OTTAWA — Khristina Lawless is almost single-handedly raising five children and operating a cattle ranch in rural Saskatchewan as her husband works shifts in the oilfields to try to make ends meet.
Yet her attempts to hire a live-in caregiver to help with her kids, ranging in age from 5 to 17, have been unsuccessful, and the controversy dogging Ottawa’s troubled temporary foreign worker program has only made things worse.
“I’m not trying to take a Canadian’s job — literally no one applied when I put up postings,” Lawless, 37, said in an interview from tiny Maryfield, in the southeast reaches of the province, shortly after tending to a sick calf on Monday.
“My last nanny was here for six months but it didn’t work out. But just getting her here in the first place was difficult. There was a lengthy wait time to get the labour market opinion, and I had to pay all of her travel expenses in addition to processing fees, and now I have to go through it all over again.”
The live-in caregiver sector is particularly nervous as Employment Minister Jason Kenney vows to further tighten the rules governing temporary foreign workers, a program originally conceived to address shortages of agricultural workers and live-in caregivers.
There are genuine, serious shortages of live-in caregivers in Canada, said the head of the Association of Caregiver and Nanny Agencies Canada.
Yet the Conservatives have already added so much red tape to the process of hiring from abroad that another round of rule changes could seriously affect Canadian families, said Manuela Gruber Hersch, an Austrian-born former nanny who worked for a Canadian family as a teenager 27 years ago before eventually becoming a Canadian citizen.
“We need bodies because there simply aren’t enough Canadian live-in caregivers,” she said.
“There’s a huge demand for nannies outside of big cities like Toronto and Vancouver, and demand across the country for elder care because we have an aging population and families are caring for sick, aging parents. We believe the government is trying to suppress that demand.”
Changes made last year to the temporary foreign worker program posed particular difficulties for Canadian families looking for live-in help, Gruber Hersch said.
The government imposed a $275 processing fee on every application for a live-in caregiver via the so-called labour market opinion process. Wait times have also dramatically increased, she said.
Nonetheless, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander had some good news for the sector last fall, announcing Canada would approve 17,500 live-in caregivers and nannies as permanent residents this year, almost twice the number from 2013.
The measures were designed to address the growing backlog of live-in caregivers currently working in Canada while waiting for permanent resident status. A few months earlier, Kenney — then immigration minister — expressed concern about the “unmanageable” backlog.
But that isn’t helping to bring new caregivers to Canada. So placement agencies are turning to another government program known as International Experience Canada.
That exchange program allows more than 50,000 citizens from 32 countries, aged 18 to 35, to come to Canada for as long as two years without having to get a positive labour market opinion.
“They’re more au pairs than anything else, younger women using the program, but it’s going really well because it’s a much easier process with no need for an LMO,” said Gruber Hersch.
“We’re just afraid that with all the bad press, the government will put a stop to it.”
The bad press, indeed, continues to hound the Conservatives. On Monday, there were fresh allegations from mall workers in B.C. who claim they’ve been mistreated, and conflicting job vacancy numbers that raise questions about the very existence of a skills shortage in Canada.
Kenney’s department, Employment and Social Development Canada, uses different measurements than Statistics Canada and the Department of Finance to determine where there are labour shortages.
“Mr. Speaker, do you know who said there was no labour shortage? It was me. Myself,” Kenney told the House of Commons on Monday.
“There is no general labour shortage in Canada. But at the same time it’s clear that there are some industries in some regions where there is a shortage of certain skills.”
John McCallum, the Liberal immigration critic who proposed a five-point plan earlier Monday to fix the temporary foreign workers program, suggested the live-in caregiver stream should be spared from any further crackdown.
“There is huge need by Canadians for people to either look after their young children or aging parents,” McCallum said.
“The program is on the verge of being broken already … they have starved it of resources, or deliberately ignored it, or they don’t like it for some reason, and as a consequence the processing times have skyrocketed.”