Foreign workers vulnerable

It’s a simple fact of life, one that has held true from the beginnings of human civilization: the bad news always flows downhill, and it’s the people on the bottom who end up mired in it.

It’s a simple fact of life, one that has held true from the beginnings of human civilization: the bad news always flows downhill, and it’s the people on the bottom who end up mired in it.

Since the time of the pharaohs, there has always been an underclass of powerless people for whom the system never seems to work, no matter how good the intentions might be.

Canada’s underclass contains a lot of immigrant workers, especially those hired to give personal care.

It’s a revealing measure of the value we Canadians place on home care labour — the hours are long, the personal demands are great and the pay is often well below the poverty line — that only desperate, powerless people can be found to do it.

Florencia Feria is a Filipina live-in care worker, one of a small army of patient, helpful immigrant workers for whom poverty in Canada has no comparison to poverty at home. For her, $21,000 a year, minus living costs, minus travel here, minus visa costs and the paperwork that requires, and minus the $3,600 agency fee she paid to get her job, is wealth. It’s enough for her to support herself and three children back home, now teenagers she has not seen in years.

Their impending reunion, scheduled for Tuesday, will be bittersweet at best.

She’s been working in Red Deer to provide care for a handicapped man living in a group home. Her contract was arranged for her by Care Home Health Services of Red Deer, through an agency called World Care Placement Agency.

Both for-profit businesses are well-versed in the rules surrounding the employment of immigrant workers, but when it was found that the man being cared for had been moved to hospital and Feria was providing care to the other group home residents instead, she was ordered out of Canada.

Fair or not, those are the rules. In the end, it is not the scruples (or lack of them) of the placement agency or contractor that determines the fate of an immigrant worker, who the law says ought to have known better.

You can only do the work your contract specifically says you can do.

Neither agency will suffer even a hiccup from this discovery. There is no shortage of disabled people needing live-in care in Red Deer and all over Canada.

For the vast majority of these people, hiring live-in help at anything remotely resembling a professional standard of pay is out of the question.

So there will always be a niche for employment agencies who will put immigrant workers into jobs demanding endless patience and compassion over long hours, few if any benefits, and low pay.

Unfortunately, rules will always be bent in situations like these. Always have been.

Consider the fate of the workers who were contracted to care for the mother of Canada’s first Sikh member of Parliament, Ruby Dhalla.

They compared their job to slavery, putting in 16-hour days of household chores, from shining shoes to shovelling snow, to cleaning Dhalla’s string of chiropractic clinics — for $24,000 a year.

Are any of our Canadian-born readers willing to work 16 hours a day as a household domestic for that level of pay?

But if an investigation finds that rules were broken, it’s the two workers who will get sent out of the country, and it will be Dhalla who is calling a placement agency for another round of replacements.

That’s the way the system works. Always has been.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.

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