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Sep 8, 2021
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Five-Jamaican-women-and-two-young-girls-standing-outsideAs Harsha Walia writes, "abuses under temporary labour migration programs are not a coincidence. The manufactured vulnerability of migrant workers is both generated by and constitutive of racial capitalism; the architecture of labor migration is intended to guarantee capital accumulation and uphold racialized gendered citizenship."[1] Among the many types of migrant workers in Canada are domestic workers (including caregivers of children and adults, who may or may not be responsible for domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning). In the over a century that Canada has relied on migrant labour to fulfill the demand for domestic workers there have been many sites of struggle, including the incredible resistance of the "Seven Jamaican Women" or "Seven Jamaican Mothers" in the 1970s, supported by various groups of organizers.[2]

Canada has a long history of depending on both free and unfree labour within the domestic sphere, both informally and through formalized programs. Notably, in addition to migrant caregivers, Canada depended on enslaved Black and/or African women, and Indigenous women facing genocide and forced into domestic training in Residential and Industrial Schools, to fulfill the caregiving demands of white society.[3] Around the time of Confederation, responding to the advocacy of white upper-middle class women, Canada brought over female caregivers from the U.K. in a form of indentured servitude.[4] After World War I, the government began more aggressively recruiting from the U.K. and extended the program to "non-preferred countries" in Central and Eastern Europe.  When the demand continued unabated, and in particular during World War II when Eastern European women were no longer recruitable, Canada recruited non-white caregivers, including women from the Caribbean, and imposed less favourable working conditions; the women were bonded to service for two years rather than six to twelve months, and earned less than half of the monthly amount white domestic workers received.[5]

Following World War II, Canadian employers began calling on the government to allow in more Caribbean domestic workers, and the colonial British Caribbean Governments with which Canada was economically connected lobbied the Canadian government to dismantle the overtly racist elements of the program.[6] Despite the initial resistance of Canada's Director of Immigration (who cited racist views as to the work ethic and willingness of Caribbean women to assimilate), in 1955, Jamaica, Canada and Barbados agreed to a framework which would become the second "Caribbean Domestic Scheme." The Seven Jamaican Mothers fell under this program. Domestic Workers would apply from the Caribbean and be admitted to Canada as landed immigrants (the equivalent of what is now known as permanent residents) if they met the program requirements, including that they be unmarried and have no dependants, and on the condition they work as live-in domestic workers for one year, subject to revocation if they were "undesirable."

Finally, as more and more white women entered the paid labour force in the 1970s and the demand for domestic workers continued to rise, Canada began admitting domestic workers as visitors on one-year employment visas, only valid and renewable for as long as they maintained employment in the field, with no true path to convert their status from visitor to immigrant or to become landed in Canada. While the immigration system was governed by the newly introduced "points system" (which continues in force today) —which privileges those with high levels of education, those from the Global North, and men, among other classes — domestic workers would find no success pursuing this path. Audrey Macklin explains the effect of the visa program as follows: "[t]he visa system effectively transformed domestic workers into a class of disposable migrant labourers [...] cheap, exploitable and expendable."[7] While these qualities have consistently characterized Canada's reliance on migrant domestic labourers, given the increasing precarity under the visa program, where now more than ever before these women's status in Canada was dependant on their relationship with their employer, the workers were subject to poor working conditions including extreme hours and the requirement to be available 24/7, as well as physical, sexual and emotional abuse which is more easily hidden in the private sphere.

The above mentioned Seven Jamaican Mothers, Elizabeth Lodge, Carmen Hude, Eliza Cox, Elaine Peart, Rubena Whyte, Gloria Lawrence and Lola Anderson, entered Canada as domestic workers under the Caribbean Domestic Scheme by following the practice urged and condoned by Jamaican and Canadian officials of not declaring their marital status nor dependant children (to avoid ineligibility).[8] Although the demand for caregivers never slowed, with the advent of an economic crisis, (im)migrants faced the scapegoating all too familiar in times of soaring unemployment; Canada responded by conducting raids and mass deportations. The Seven Jamaican Mothers were targeted for such, on the basis of "misrepresenting" their marital and parenthood status. The women appealed their deportation orders without success.[9] In concert with mass mobilization efforts, they proceeded to file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Canada in 1978 arguing their deportations were the result of discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour and sex. They further sought an injunction staying their deportation until the conclusion of the Commission's investigation (with each of the women represented by illustrious counsel known for their commitment to civil rights, including Charles Roach), but were again unsuccessful, including on appeal.[10] The then Immigration Minister, perhaps in an effort to placate organizers, stated that the women would receive "sympathetic treatment" if they attempted to return. The women received "Minister's permits" which overrode the legislation on a one-off basis, allowing them to return to Canada. This targeting of the Seven did not fracture the highly principled organizing campaign which had by then developed out of and around the efforts of the women: that campaign was aimed at challenging the racist and sexist nature of the system as a whole, and not merely securing the rightful status of this particular group of women.

At all times, the efforts in the legal sphere were coupled with mass mobilization from coast-to-coast, led by members of the Black and Caribbean communities, migrant care worker communities, anti-racist groups, feminist and labour movement activists, and the eventual support of the Canadian public; many new coalitions and organizations were formed as a result. According to Ethel Antoinette Tungohan, "mobilization efforts undertaken on behalf of the seven Jamaican mothers, in fact, were the first documented instance [...] of migrant care workers coming together in support of fellow migrant care workers. While it is true that prior to this time period, individuals and even organizations were formed to support migrant care workers, these micro-rebellions did not ‘scale up’ and lead to a mass movement. In contrast, the collective efforts that were undertaken on behalf of the seven Jamaican mothers was decisive in entrenching the idea that migrant care workers have specific interests and subsequently have a ‘movement’ representing them."[11]

During and after the legal challenges, frontline organizations such as Intercede, and newly formed organizations such as the Committee Against the Deportation of Immigrant Women, fundraised for the women's legal costs, held press conferences, lobbied government officials, released position papers, protested, and held conferences, shedding light on the experience of these women and exposing the inherent classism, racism and sexism the system levied on so many others. A constant theme in this organizing was a call for full immigration status on arrival in Canada, captured by a slogan which continues to ring through migrant organizing today – "good enough to work, good enough to stay."[12]

The organizing efforts spurred by the Seven Jamaican Mothers resulted in a new caregiving program entitled the Foreign Domestics Movement in 1981.[13] While it amounted to a victory in some respects, caregivers remained vulnerable as their ability to apply for permanent residence was dependant on having completed two years of employment with a single employer and a positive reference, and while women were no longer prohibited from migrating on the basis of their marital or parenthood status, classist and racist assessment tools (i.e. "suitability" or ability to assimilate into Canada society) were still applied. The organizers continued their efforts, and again achieved implementation of a new Live-In Caregiver program in 1992.[14] While it removed some of the more overtly racist and classist metrics, it couched similar tools in the form of increased educational requirements.

While Caribbean women represented the single largest non-white group of domestic workers from the 1950s-80s, women from the Philippines have been in the majority since, thanks to the effects of imperialism and imposed austerity prompting many of these women to work abroad in order to send remittances home.[15] Employment agencies which pair caregivers with families continue to promote myths around the superior "suitability" of Filipina women for this work based on racist and sexist tropes, and collaborate with employers and the state to both promote and invisibilize abuse.[16]

In 2014, Canada removed the "live-in" requirement of the program, but given the lack of bargaining power held by these women, it is often a requirement imposed by employers and agencies nonetheless. The program closed to new applicants in 2014, and was replaced by a number of pilots. In all modern iterations of the program, women have remained vulnerable as their pathway to permanent status in Canada has remained dependant on the satisfaction of two years’ work experience among other requirements, notwithstanding some greater (often times illusory) ability to move to a new employer. In many provinces, caregivers are excluded from minimum employment standards (i.e. minimum wage, limits on hours of work), and many to whom such standards do apply are simply too vulnerable to exercise their rights.

New forms of isolation and abandonment have taken hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many caregivers barred by their employers from leaving their home and sometimes rooms (including to see friends, go to the bank to send home remittances, or go to a doctor), assigned greater responsibilities such as assisting with virtual schooling and constant disinfecting of surfaces, caring for COVID-19 positive family members without appropriate personal protective equipment, and working more hours without compensation.[17] Migrant rights movement builders continue to call for reform given the continued exploitation of these women, and have not yet been able to leave behind their rallying cry, "good enough to work, good enough to stay." Mothers are still required to leave their families behind to care for Canadians until, and if, they achieve permanent status in Canada.

To learn more about this topic, see:



[1] Harsha Walia, Border & Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, (Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2021) at p 137.

[2] Ethel Antoinette Tungohan, From the Politics of Everyday Resistance to the Politics From Below: Migrant Care Worker Activism in Canada (Doctor of Philosophy, University of Toronto, 2014 [unpublished]) at p 159-60; Anne Beyefsky, "The Jamaican Women Case and the Canadian Human Rights Act: Is Government Subject to the Principle of Equal Opportunity?" (1979-80) 18 UW ON L Rev 461 at p 467-68; Audrey Macklin, "Foreign Domestic Worker: Surrogate Housewife of Mail Order Servant?," (1992) 37:3 McGill LJ  495 at p 548-49.

[3] Leah Simone Bowen & Falen Johnson, The Secret Life of Canada, Season 2, Episode 23: "The Nanny" (2019).

[4] Macklin, supra, p 502.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid at p 503.

[7] Ibid at p 505.

[8] Tungohan, supra, p 159.

[9] Bayefsky, supra, p 467.

[10] Re Lodge et al and Minister of Employment and Immigration, 1979 CanLII 2758 (FCA).

[11] Tungohan, supra, at p 160-61.

[12] Ibid at p 162.

[13] Ibid/

[14] Ibid at p 170.

[15] Macklin, supra, p 509.

[16] Ibid at p 514.

[17] The Caregivers' Action Centre et al, "Behind Closed Doors: Exposing Migrant Care Worker Exploitation During COVID-19" (2020).

Special thanks to Kylie Sier for her assistance in preparing this feature.

About this feature: The Cavalluzzo LLP features series, Reflections: Labour, Human and Civil Rights, highlights some of the leaders, events, and milestones that are historical underpinnings to the current landscape of Canadian human rights and labour rights. Reflections may reference abhorrent historical realities: as we bear witness to those, we also recognize with gratitude the courage and commitment of the changemakers who continue to inspire strides in social justice. Each instalment in this series has been authored or contributed to by Cavalluzzo LLP staff, articling students or lawyers. 

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