Colle’s calling: A bill to protect caregivers

Liberal MPP Mike Colle, Eglinton-Lawrence, remembers his family struggling, as all new immigrant families do, while trying to build their life in Toronto.

His mother found a job as a seamstress but she often dealt with difficult working conditions and oppressive employers. “She would never complain, even though she was underpaid and worked long hours,” Colle said.

It’s a situation that hasn’t changed much over the years and for one occupation especially, nannies, reports of abuse have been commonplace.

Spurred by the memory of his mother’s experience, Colle has become the driving force behind a private member’s bill that seeks to protect nannies, the vast majority of them brought to Canada to work as live-in caregivers from places such as the Phillipines, and to regulate the agencies that recruit them.

Bill 160, the Caregiver and Foreign Worker Recruitment and Protection Act, 2009, would put oversight into the hands of the Ontario Ministry of Labour. The bill is also an attempt to shift some responsibility onto Ottawa, which governs the immigrant work program.

“The federal government came up with the live in care giver program 18 years ago,” Colle said. “In that time they’ve done nothing to strengthen the program or stop the abuses. Hopefully by us taking action provincially it will put pressure on the federal government to do its job,” Colle said.

Colle’s bill also plans to create an abuse hotline and an outreach and communication campaign through local community centres. The Province would enforce a code of conduct and license recruiters.

Colle said one of the reasons caregiver abuse hasn’t been a public issue is because many nannies are afraid that if they complain or speak out against the exploitation they will be deported back to their home country.

Hannah Belachew came to Canada from Ethiopia 10 years ago.  After settling in Toronto with her older brother and sister, she found a job as a nanny. She said she enjoyed her job when she first started. She lived with her employers for two years, and said her hours were set at 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. But she didn’t usually know how long she’d be expected to work each day.

“I wasn’t supposed to work more than eight to 10 hours a day,” Belachew said. “But I worked really long hours most of the time. They didn’t’ give me overtime but they did offer me extra time off or let me start work later the next day.” Belachew said.

At one point she was told the kitchen was off limits when the employers weren’t home, except to give the children snacks: “I didn’t understand what that meant,” Belachew said. “I didn’t know when I could cook my own food, so I didn’t.”

Belachew now has her Canadian citizenship and has quit being a nanny.  She hopes bill 160 is passed and is excited about the changes it promises.

“Everyone wants to work in a safe, fair environment, everyone has the right to,” Belachew said.

Bill 160 cleared second reading at Queen’s Park on April 9 and is currently before a committee of the whole of the Ontario legislature.

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