By Tobi Cohen, Postmedia News, November 10, 2011

OTTAWA — Immigrants admitted through the government’s foreign live-in caregiver stream say they’ve been duped by the immigration minister, who touted the program’s success and certain growth prior to the May election, only to claw back on the number targeted for permanent residency next year.

Although the government maintains 98 per cent of live-in caregivers eventually become permanent residents, last week Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said fewer people were qualifying for the program, adding that it was one of two streams poised to take a hit in 2012 as the government freezes overall immigration while boosting certain economic streams.

It’s a far different tune than the one Kenney was singing last year.

“I predict that the live-in caregiver program will be a growing and important part of our immigration system in the future,” Kenney told a group of mostly Filipino nannies in a March 2010 video posted on YouTube.

It’s passed around among caregivers and advocates who have turned to an online forum and Twitter to voice their concerns.

“Kenney promised the moon and now ignores cries of caregivers for help,” says one Twitter post.

“How can you do this to us? Just like that, why would caregivers not qualify for PR? You said we contribute to Canada’s families,” says another.

Catherine Manuel, a live-in caregiver and volunteer with the GTA Caregiver Action Centre, said in an interview that she’s worried the government may be phasing out the program and questioned whether Kenney is a “turncoat” whose pre-election musings were little more than a ploy for votes.

The Filipino native — about two-thirds of live-in caregivers come from the Philippines — said the caregiver community was “blooming” when she first applied but that it’s been “a mess” for the last three years.

Critics say changes to the program adopted in April 2010 aimed at protecting caregivers from exploitation are part of the problem. The changes have actually cast a chill over the market, they say, making it onerous and risky for employers to hire live-in nannies who look after both young children and the elderly.

“Families now have to cover all the recruitment fees, the airfare, temporary health insurance for the first three months and also an immigration lawyer or immigration consultant,” said Manuela Gruber Hersch of the Association of Caregiver and Nanny Agencies Canada, which represents matchmaker companies and seeks to set standards for an industry that has suffered a bad rap in recent years.

Caregivers, however, are free to work for somebody else once they clear customs, she said, adding they often do, whether it’s because the family isn’t a good fit or because they want to be closer to friends or relatives.

“People want to hire a nanny but they ask ‘what guarantee do I have that this person is actually going to work for me,’” she said.

It’s a contributing factor toward declining numbers, she says, but the need for caregivers remains high given Canada’s aging population and the absence of a national childcare program.

She believes the government is deliberately trying to slow down or phase out the program — and if so, she urges Canada to consider an au pair program that would allow young people to enter the country for a couple of years to work with families, gain experience and perfect their language skills.

“Canadians don’t want to be nannies or caregivers,” she said. “We need some sort of program because I don’t see any change in that.”

Immigration lawyer Rafael Fabregas said the solution is to eliminate the two-tier system that currently exists for live-in caregivers, where the nannies must first obtain temporary foreign-worker visas and work as live-in caregivers for at least two out of four years before they and their families can seek permanent residency.

Instead, he believes Canada should offer immediate permanent residency to foreign caregivers on condition they work in the field and live with their employer for a set period of time, which could vary depending on whether it’s a rural or urban setting.

“For example, a caregiver who works in Toronto will require three years of work experience, while a caregiver who works in London will only require two years of work experience,” he suggested.

“This approach would give an incentive to caregivers to find employers who are outside the major city centres and adjacent suburbs.”

Not only would it get rid of a perpetual backlog in applications for permanent residence, Fabregas said it would “level the playing field” for both employers and caregivers. Employers will get timely access to a pool of candidates who are already in Canada, while caregivers will have their families around for support and be able to walk away from a bad situation knowing doing so won’t hurt their chance of becoming a permanent resident.

He also urges the government to make it a “lottery system” like the one used in the United States for Green Cards.

“Make available a certain number of permanent resident visas annually. If the quota is met, they can try again next year,” Fabregas said, adding the number ought to be based on labour market needs.

“Such a system would be far better than what we currently have.”

Kenney unveiled immigration targets for next year that show a reduction in the number of live-in caregivers who will be granted permanent resident status.

According to the figures, Canada has set a target of 8,000-9,300 for 2012. This year’s target range was 12,000-16,000, while Canada accepted nearly 14,000 live-in caregivers as permanent residents in 2010.

Statistics also show a significant drop in the number of temporary foreign worker visas issued to live-in caregivers. In 2007, Canada approved 11,876 applications compared to just 7,185 in 2010. Between January and June of this year, just 2,702 visa applications were approved.

The current wait time for both temporary foreign worker visas and permanent residency for live-in caregivers is 18 months.

That’s about how long caregiver Leo Roxas has been waiting.

The Filipino father, 28, has been looking after his employer’s three children for about two-and-a-half years and is hoping to be among the approximately 9,000 live-in caregivers who will be granted permanent residency in 2012.

He luckily landed a kind and generous employer but would like to be able to bring his wife and three-year-old son to Canada as soon as possible.

Eventually, he also wants to go back to school.

“My employer is really nice to me, the kids really love me but I also miss my family back home,” he said, adding many in his situation “really want to do other things other than caregiving.”

tcohen@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/tobicohen

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