About 70 people were present last Friday afternoon on de Maisonneuve St. to protest an Internet auction that included, as item #639964, the services of Filipina domestic workers. Placed by Diva International, the ad was put unobtrusively among ads for shopping sprees, furniture, jewelry and other consumer goods. The ad appeared in the widely read Montreal Gazette.
“This is the final straw,” said Jasmine DelaCalzada of PINAY, the Filipina women’s organization in Quebec. “The Federal government’s Live-In Caregiver program turns our women into indentured workers, or virtual slaves. Now they have been turned into throwaway commodities you can bid for.”
While the ad, after much public outcry, was ultimately lifted from the Gazette, it points to the larger, more invisible problems encountered by immigrant domestic workers in Canada. Two recent news items in Montreal highlight the scope of the difficult plight faced by many immigrant domestic workers from all backgrounds. On March 18, the story of a Filipina woman who lost her job for refusal to undergo an abortion was made public.
And, just prior to this, we learned of an ‘illegal’ domestic worker who was deported back to Morocco after allegedly enduring years of abuse and exploitation at the hands of a number of employers. Many people who turned up at Friday’s protest wanted answers to complex questions facing immigrant domestic workers in Canada, namely, what do such situations say to us about the rights of these workers?
At the moment, domestic workers, hired through agencies, are often placed at the mercy of their employers, forced to depend on their good will.
This dependency often extenuates the already strong power-dynamic between an immigrant worker and their (usually) Canadian employer. Canadian law allows for the possibility of applying for citizenship after 24 months of work within 36 months of arrival; this policy encourages many workers to accept more infringements on their rights and agreements with work agencies and individual employers, for fear that leaving an employer would hinder their chances of reaching the 24 month minimum.
There is also the issue of work that occurs in the privacy of a home allowing for abuses to be perpetrated more quietly – unnoticed by the outside world.
“The reality is that so much of the violence has been normalized […] so that information doesn’t make it out. [The auction] is just one example,” said protester and Concordia student Stephanie Madden. “The media only looks at the sensational.”
What is not sensational, what does not get reported are the conditions in which domestics are working everyday. It is these conditions that protesters feel need to be publicized and changed. So, the slogans heard on the street last Friday of “Stop the sale of people for profit”, “free trade makes slaves”, and “racist immigration laws exploit domestic workers” marked a tiny – but distinct – step in that direction.