Jun 18, 2024

Canada’s broken promises to migrant care workers

By , and Banner
Source: made using Canva stock images

On June 3, 2024, Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced new migrant care worker pilot programs, which take important steps to address some of the concerns raised by workers and advocates. Unfortunately, Canada has a long track record of broken promises to migrant care workers and it is not clear how the new pilot programs would accomplish what they set out to do when previous rounds of pilots did not.

When the federal Home Care Provider Pilot and Home Support Worker Pilot programs were launched in 2019, they were supposed to provide a “clear, direct pathway to permanent residence”

Unfortunately, the pilot programs that ended on June 17, 2024 have largely not delivered on their promises, failing thousands of migrant care workers and their families in the process. 

Far from offering a clear or direct pathway to permanent residence (PR), these programs have achieved the opposite. Migrant care workers find themselves ensnared in a slow, unnecessarily convoluted bureaucratic maze. Even after years of living and working in Canada, a path to PR remains unclear for most who applied.

Amid the changes to the migrant care worker programs since 2014, including the introduction of two rounds of pilot programs, many care workers have been unable to transition into these pilot programs due to shifting program and PR application requirements. As a result, many migrant care workers have fallen out of regular status and become undocumented.

Unfortunately, the pilot programs have largely not delivered on their promises.

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) most-recent announcement, only 5,700 care workers and their families have become permanent residents in the program’s five-year existence. The pilot programs were supposed to provide a path to PR for 5,500 workers per year or 27,500 workers over their five-year span.

The announcement also indicates that approximately 600 applications remain in the current backlog from the Live-in-Caregiver Program, which closed ten years ago. This means 600 families, including many workers’ children, have been in limbo for over a decade. The children of these workers age out of the dependent category for immigration purposes at age 22, which can be devastating for separated families who lose hope of a long-awaited reunification. While these migrant care workers attend to Canadian families, they cannot physically be with their own.

The IRCC has much work to do to ensure the most-recent announcement is not simply the latest in a series of failed pilot programs. After all, in 2019, the announcement also sounded like an improvement, promising permanent residence to 5,500 workers per year with a processing time of 12 months. Five years later, those promises have not been delivered upon.

Unprocessed Applications, Long Wait Times

Our investigation into the 2019-2024 federal care worker pilot programs uncovered startling delays within Canada’s immigration system. Despite committing to a 12-month processing service standard at the outset, data accessed through Access to Information requests reveal that the IRCC has processed a shockingly small percentage of PR applications submitted by care workers and their dependents. Of the applications received between the launch of the programs on June 18, 2019 to January 31, 2023, only 6,125 out of 37,568—just 16%—were processed by March 21, 2023 (see Table 1).

In addition to slow processing, these pilot programs had relatively high rates of refusal. IRCC data show that of all processed PR applications as of March 21, 2023 (excluding withdrawals), only 57% were approved.

Based on data supplied to us from the IRCC, from January 1, 2019 to January 31, 2023, only 2,581 PR applications were approved under the care workers pilot programs, representing about 7% of the 37,568 applications received. In June 2024, the IRCC announced that as of April 30, 2024, it granted permanent residency to “nearly 5,700” workers and their families across the five years of the pilot programs. This figure is astonishingly low, amounting to just one-fifth of the annual 5,500 application cap initially proposed upon announcement of the 2019-2024 pilots. Both numbers suggest that the IRCC has consistently failed to meet its targets and promises.

Not only was the number of approvals extraordinarily small, but processing times also lengthened each year. The IRCC currently reports an average wait time of 31-36 months for care worker PR, about triple the target processing time of 12 months set for these pilot programs. The sole exception is applications submitted under the Home Child Care Provider Pilot by workers who had already completed the required months of work experience at the time of application. These workers can expect an average 26 months processing time. 

The wait times for care workers are currently longer than those for any other economic class of immigration applications with the exception of the start-up visa program (37 months) and the Quebec business class program for investors and entrepreneurs (48 months).

The result is an overwhelming majority of care workers who applied did not see PR within the lifetime of the pilots.

“So, I’m confused when I will get PR. It’s been so long. It took three years. And they said processing is sometimes 12 months, and then it became 24 [months] and then it became 36 [months] and now it’s the three-year anniversary this August for the application. Today is the 37th month of my [submitted] PR [application] and now it’s difficult because…it’s very limited what you’re able to do here if you’re just a live-in caregiver.”

The incredibly low processing rates of PR applications, coupled with the relatively high rate of denials and prolonged wait times starkly contradict the consistent demands of care worker activists for permanent residency for these workers. This situation also falls far short of the “clear direct pathway to permanent residence” that the federal government promised in 2019. 

As of January 2023, over 30,000 people remained in “inventory”. As the government celebrates another new pilot program, we still do not know what will happen to those left in processing limbo or those who have become undocumented.

Care Workers Still Caught in a Familiar Cycle of Exploitation

The devaluation of migrant women care workers can be traced through white supremacist systems of “empire settlement” (Tungohan 2023, 22). White European women were granted permanent residency for their care work in the early twentieth century, but beginning in the 1950s, Caribbean and Asian women have largely been denied this recognition and security, entering Canada temporarily to perform work deemed “low-skilled” and low-waged.  

Despite the government’s promise to offer permanent residency to migrant care workers applying to the new pilot programs, there currently remains a large number of unprocessed applications from migrant care workers who will continue to be drawn from the Global South and classified as temporary labour. Canada’s care worker programs have largely drawn from the Philippines in the past two decades. Exacerbated by long PR processing times, these workers face chronic uncertainty, prolonged family separation, continual precarious employment and economic insecurity. 

Our investigation found that despite the elimination of the live-in requirement in 2014, many migrant care workers who arrived under the 2019 pilot programs are still economically compelled to reside with their employers.

In regions like BC’s Lower Mainland, where the median wage for these workers hovers barely above minimum wage and rents are sky-high, workers have little choice but to live with their employers and often find themselves trapped in cycles of underpayment and mistreatment. This is reminiscent of the former Live-In Caregiver Program that care worker advocates and their allies fought so hard to overhaul. For example, workers told us about employers promising to meet the legal wage requirements on paper but paid less behind closed doors, and contract violations including not being appropriately compensated for overtime or being asked to do unpaid overtime.

“I try to find a family [to employ me] and I talk to many family… It’s hard when they offered me, they want to hire me but you know what? They say like, ‘If I hire you…I’m going to show to the government like minimum wage but I can pay you less than minimum wage.’ So tricky.”

Care workers who are fired or who quit abusive employment told us they have found it challenging to secure new positions under fair conditions that recognize their worker rights.

The enforcement of employment standards—ensuring workers are paid at least the minimum wage for all their hours of work, that overtime work is paid appropriately, that working hours are not excessive and that other basic rights are followed—is notoriously lax in this sector. Without adequate enforcement, employment standards violations often go unnoticed due to the isolated nature of the work in a private home, the power imbalance between employers and employees, the lack of education among care worker employers about their responsibilities and the precarious immigration status of the workers.

 Two Paths Forward

Combined, painfully slow processing times and persistently poor working conditions underscore the systematic failure of Canada’s 2019 care worker pilot programs. The recently announced 2025 migrant care worker pilot programs could be a major step forward in eliminating PR application barriers, but it remains to be seen whether these changes will produce equitable improvements or if these programs will continue, by design, to abandon care workers.

Canadians’ need for at-home care is only increasing with our aging population. In light of the failures of the last ten years of migrant care worker pilot programs, we offer the following recommendations to ensure the failures of the past are not repeated for the newly proposed programs. Our recommendations align with the government’s stated intention to provide a one-step PR upon-arrival process—an approach we strongly support as both necessary and overdue.

1) Expediting processing PR applications for all care workers, and their family members, who applied for PR through any prior care worker program.

2) Ensure that applicants to the new migrant care worker pilot programs are processed and approved in a timely manner, before arrival in Canada.

3) Provide PR to migrant care workers who have become undocumented due to the overly stringent and/or shifting PR application requirements over the course of their time providing care work in Canada.

4) Coordinate with provincial governments to improve enforcement of employment standards and protections for migrant care workers.

5) Transition the migrant care worker pilot programs to a permanent immigration program by 2025, preventing changing immigration policies from unduly burdening migrant care workers.

Granting permanent status upon arrival for all migrant workers recognizes the decades-long call from organizations like the Vancouver Committee for Domestic Workers’ and Caregivers’ Rights (CDWCR), Toronto’s Caregiver Connections Education and Support Organization (CCESO), Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), Migrante Canada, Gabriela-Ontario and other migrant-led organizations in the cross-Canada migrant justice alliance called the Migrant Rights Network (MRN). Referred to as “status for all,” this type of immigration reform is the most-effective policy change to reduce precarity for migrant care workers while enhancing stability and availability of valued workers to meet important labour needs in Canada.

As the federal government looks to implement its new migrant care worker pilot programs strategy, we call upon the IRCC to meaningfully follow through by implementing the recommendations of the Migrant Rights Network and live up to its own “commitment to improve the lives of caregivers and their families who come from around the world to care for our loved ones.”

This brief is based on the research project, “Exploring the Intersections of Immigration Policy, Racism, and Precarity for Migrant Care Workers”, undertaken as part of the Understanding Precarity in BC Partnership. We analyzed thousands of pages of IRCC internal documents and statistics to understand the operational dynamics behind the federal care worker pilot programs. Requests for 2023-2024 statistics were not fulfilled by IRCC in time for this publication. The qualitative research portion of the project included interviews with 30 care workers in BC to understand their experiences with the care worker pilot programs. We found that not only had old problems familiar from the now-defunct live-in caregiver program persisted, but new ones emerged. Our full research report is forthcoming in summer 2024.

Noemi Rosario Martinez, Rincy Dominic Calamba, Kassandra Cordero, Alice Mũrage and Cenen Bagon contributed to this article.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful for research funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through the Understanding Precarity in BC partnership grant.

 Further Reading

Caregivers’ Action Centre. 2020. “Behind Closed Doors: Exposing Migrant Care Worker Exploitation during COVID-19.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. 2019. “Canada Caring for Caregivers.” News release. June 15, 2019. 

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. 2024. “Canada announces new pilot programs to support caregivers and Canadian families, intends to make the caregivers program permanent.” News release. June 3, 2024. 

Tungohan, Ethel. 2023. Care Activism: Migrant Domestic Workers, Movement-Building, and Communities of Care. First Edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


UP-BCThis article is part of Understanding Precarity in BC (UP-BC), a research and public engagement initiative investigating precarious work and multi-dimensional precarity in British Columbia. UP-BC is jointly led by Simon Fraser University’s Morgan Centre for Labour Research and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC Office, and brings together four BC universities, 26 community-based organizations and more than 80 academic and community researchers and collaborators. The partnership is supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). For more information about UP-BC visit understandingprecarity.ca.

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