Canada’s “Citizens in Waiting” 

Naomi Lightman
21 October 2023

Canada’s vaunted path to citizenship for care workers is seriously flawed. 

In Canada, like most wealthy nations, much has been made of an impending “crisis” in care provisioning for vulnerable groups,  including children, the elderly, and people experiencing disabilities. Also as in most wealthy nations, there has been minimal focus on creating care jobs that are attractive to native-born workers. Instead, governments have tacitly accepted that primarily immigrant women will fill this gap in the labour market. Unsaid but implied is that these women will have no alternative but to accept the precarious, low-wage, physically demanding, emotionally difficult, and socially devalued work of providing paid care.

Yet widespread shortages remain across Canada’s care sector. Despite landmark recent funding by the federal Liberal government (with C$30 billion earmarked over five years for a national childcare program in April 2022), appropriate childcare remains elusive or unattainable for many families. For those in need of elder care, the COVID19 pandemic intensified existing shortages of personal support workers in home and long-term care, while waitlists for hospital procedures and specialist care testify to longstanding nursing shortages within the publicly funded system.  

 Why is this the case? In contrast to many comparator countries, Canada implemented a specific policy to import immigrant care workers in 1992. The Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) was created as part of Canada’s broader Temporary Foreign Worker Program and was touted by the federal government as a uniquely Canadian solution to meet the childcare needs of working parents and the elder care needs of an aging population. 

Under the LCP, immigrant caregivers were required to provide personal care for children, seniors, or people experiencing disabilities while living on-site, with a closed work permit that was tied to their employer. After completing 24 months of registered service within a period of four consecutive years, immigrant caregivers in the LCP could apply for permanent residency (PR) from within Canada and subsequently sponsor their immediate family members from abroad.

In November 2014, the federal government announced a reform of the LCP, now replaced by the Caregiver Program (CP). The CP removed the live-in requirement for caregivers entering under this program and divided it into two streams (the “Caring for People with High Medical Needs Pathway” and the “Caring for Children Pathway”). The removal of the obligation to live in care recipients’ homes was applauded by immigrant care workers and their advocates, who noted it had created scenarios of extreme vulnerability. However, while both streams continued to require 24 months of employment prior to applying for PR, the government capped applications for permanent residency status for both of these streams at only 2,750 per year, leading to extended wait times. Most recently, in recognition of the very long processing times many CP migrants experience, in April 2023, the federal government reduced the amount of qualifying work experience from 24 months to 12 months for CP workers applying for permanent residency status. 

Yet the caring shortage remains, as Canada’s governments increasingly cut social services and privatize social care. 

Longstanding critiques of Canada’s immigrant caregiver policy highlight unscrupulous recruiters and employers and unacceptably long wait times for family reunification. LCP/CP migrants are often characterized as “citizens-in-waiting” due to their “two-step” pathway to PR. In addition, the vulnerable employment conditions embedded in the policy often lead to workplace exploitation and abuse; migrants are not allowed to take educational courses longer than 6 months before achieving permanent residency, which inhibits their ability to upgrade their skills or transfer their foreign credentials; truncated social networks outside the caring sector mean they often remain “stuck” in care; and poor pay leads to challenges making ends meet.

In addition to these well documented problems, my recent research on immigrant women care workers who have received permanent residency suggests that the challenges continue even after passing this considerable hurdle. 

Importantly, I find that immigrant care workers experience ongoing negative financial implications for taking time out of the labour market to give birth to a child. Their income is typically lower after they return to work than prior to having a baby, notwithstanding ongoing shortages in the care sector. And those who do not receive PR are unable to access any maternity leave at all, despite paying premiums into it while they are working. 

I also examine the income trajectories of low status female immigrant workers from 1993-2015, and find concrete evidence of a care wage penalty, even in comparison to other low-skill immigrant workers. Intended care workers (those who, when landing in Canada, intend to work as nurse aides, early childhood educators and teachers’ assistants, and as in-home care providers) fare worse over two decades in the labour market than comparable intended non-care workers.

Immigrant care worker women also fare worse financially than other comparable immigrant women as they age. Examining the retirement income of immigrant women over an eleven-year timespan (2007-2017), I show that despite their high levels of language proficiency and human capital, these women are more likely to continue paid work after the age of 65, but have lesser and declining total income as they age. While these women receive higher rates of government pension supports, they have lower levels of private pension savings and the cumulative income they report through tax filings demonstrates a trajectory of relative downward mobility over time. 

Together, the above findings highlight an urgent need in Canada for renewed government investment in social policy supports to reduce social inequalities tied to the gendered and racialized devaluation of caring occupations and industries. The status quo is failing immigrant care worker women when they arrive in Canada, over their working lives, and into their senior years. Given that caring shortages will certainly only increase with aging populations, it is both ethically and practically necessary to reform public policies. 

Author’s webpage Naomi Lightman

The cover picture is designed by Nancy Folbre.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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