Posted on February 26, 2008

The Nanny Economy

Duncan Mavin, National Post (Don Mills), February 23, 2008

It’s a bleak January morning in a Don Mills cafe when Elena Bautista explains why she left her husband and young daughters in the Philippines five years ago to look after someone else’s children in Canada.

“I came here for the future of my kids,” says Bautista. “It’s for a greener pasture.”

Bautista is one of tens of thousands of Filipina nannies who have come to Canada in search of a decent salary and a better life. Like many of the nannies, she hopes her family will one day be able to follow her to Canada. But there’s a deep personal cost to her plans.

“It’s hard,” says Bautista, a small, quiet 41-year-old who speaks English well, albeit with a halting Filipino accent. As she talks about her family she twists her fork slowly in a plateful of the cafe’s pancit noodles that are “OK,” but not as tasty as the ones she makes at home.

She has been back to the Philippines only twice since first arriving in Toronto and buys phone cards so she can call her family at least once a week.

“Of course I want to see my girls so much, and they want me to be with them, too.”

Her employers, Paul and Rebecca Robertson, live among Toronto’s elite in Rosedale. The Robertsons (names have been changed at the family’s request) both work demanding jobs, while Bautista takes care of their two children—she calls them “my children”—Ellie, 2, and her brother Jacob, 4.

“I was there in the hospital when Jacob was born,” she says. “Jacob really loves cuddling.”

Bautista says the Robertsons are respectful of her time and the sacrifice she makes in order to look after their kids. Paul says Elena is one of the family—besides, it makes sense to take care of the person you are trusting with your children.

The Robertsons even paid for Bautista’s two visits home—a time full of mixed emotions for all involved, says Bautista.

When she leaves Ellie and Jacob in Toronto they are very upset. And when the time comes to say goodbye again to her daughters, Chrystal, 12, and Cherry-May, 10, they are devastated, too. “Your kids are crying and so are you. You have to turn your back and plug your ears.”

The most trying times are birthdays—Chrystal’s was last month—and Christmas, when she buys an extra phone card to make a longer call home. Later this year, it will be Chrystal’s sixth-grade graduation prom and Bautista has already broken the news that she won’t be there to help her daughter choose a dress for the big event.

But with her Canadian income, Bautista has sent money home that has paid for the girls to go to private school—this means class sizes of fewer than 30 compared to as many as 80 in state schools—and pays for a standard of living that would otherwise be out of reach for her family.

“To me, life is more happy in the Philippines,” says Bautista. “But financially . . . it’s not enough. It’s not enough.”

Bautista’s husband, Stephen, and their two girls live more than 13,000 kilometres from Toronto. Their home is in the village of La Trinidad, on the outskirts of Baguio, a mountain city of congested streets that’s a seven hour drive from Manila.

Their second-storey apartment lies among dozens of other rough concrete and tin constructions across a bridge of two wooden planks and down a pot-holed road. Hot and cold running water is a luxury here, even for middle-class families.

Stephen and Elena were childhood neighbours—they married in 1994 but have mostly lived apart since then. Stephen is a mining engineer and worked for years in Oman before the mine dried up. When he returned home to unemployment, the best option for the couple was to utilize Elena’s background in the care industry. It would be her turn to make a living abroad—as a nanny.

In La Trinidad, the Bautistas’ apartment is clean and bright. There’s a new television, a modern stereo and a laptop—a gift from the Robertsons. Stephen’s jeans and Ralph Lauren T-shirt look new. Cherry-May and Chrystal are also well dressed and tidy.

Dozens of the family’s neighbours also work overseas.

“That one’s in Germany,” Stephen says pointing to a nearby house. “This one is in Switzerland. There, they live in Hong Kong. That one with the new red roof is in Canada. This one is in Israel.” The homes where someone works abroad are in notably better condition than those of their stay-at-home neighbours.

But if the cash rewards of leaving home are clear, they come at a heavy emotional price.

Stephen says he thought the family would be reunited within a couple of years of his wife leaving La Trinidad. As things stand, the Bautistas still don’t know for certain when they will all move to Toronto.

“I hope we will go this year to join Elena,” Stephen says. “I want to go there for the sake of my children. That’s first and foremost.”

The Bautistas are hardly unique. Eight million Filipinos work overseas today, lured from home by developed world wages. Ten per cent of the country’s population is abroad. They send back an estimated US$16-billion each year—remittances are one of the most fruitful sectors of the Filipino economy and account for about 10% of the national gross domestic product.

More than 6,000 Filipinas arrive in Canada under the federal government’s live-in caregiver program. They make up more than one in five female immigrants to Canada and more than nine out of 10 of the live-in caregiver program’s participants.

The program, which began in 1992, is so popular in the Philippines that the Canadian embassy in Manila struggles to do any other business, says Doug Kellam, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC).

“It’s a success in that it matches a certain need of employers in Canada, and gives applicants the right to become a permanent resident here when they otherwise might not qualify for immigration,” Kellam explains. Almost all nannies who move here through this program become permanent residents.

Filipina nannies in Canada also typically work fewer hours than they would elsewhere—there are many of them in Hong Kong and the Middle East, for instance—and they can earn more here, too.

The program is “a gift,” says Audrey Guth, founder of Diamond Personnel. “As a Canadian I’m very proud of it.”

Guth has been recruiting Filipina nannies for two decades. She places “a few hundred” Filipinas with Canadian families every year. And competition among agencies has intensified in the past 10 years. In the late ‘90s, her company was one of only a couple that went to Hong Kong to recruit Filipinas to Canada; now there are as many as 40 agencies recruiting there.

“We are the only country in the world that says, ‘We have a job that Canadians aren’t particularly interested in doing. So if you come over and do this job—which is taking care of our children—we are going to give you the gift of permanent residency.’ That’s the draw,” says Guth.

Guth acknowledges nannies who leave their own children behind are making “the ultimate sacrifice” but there is a payoff, she says. “When a nanny walks into my office with her whole family that have come here—that’s the feel-good part of my job.”

Participating nannies can stay here for three years initially. They are required to prove their skills through a mix of qualifications and experience, and then they must have a sponsor in Canada—someone who will employ them when they get here.

Once participants have 24 months of work under their belt in Canada, they can get permanent residence status and then apply to bring their families here. If they don’t get enough work experience within three years, it’s often possible for a Filipina to extend her stay with other work permits and visas.

The best nannies are highly sought after and some families are reluctant to let a good one go even years after they expected their kids would no longer need one.

“They come from an incredibly nurturing culture,” Guth explains. “They have very strong family values. They are well educated, so you are not just getting a domestic helper as they are called in Hong Kong—you are getting a teacher, a nurse, someone who has a lot of education and [knows] English, of course.”

Their numbers have reached a kind of critical mass among Toronto’s middle-class households. Filipina nannies are perceived as the gold standard—reliable, somewhat deferential to their employers and willing to follow instructions to a T.

“One reason everyone wants a Filipina nanny is because everybody else in the neighbourhood has one,” says one Toronto resident whose kids are cared for by a Filipina. “And because there are so many other kids with Filipina nannies, it’s easier to get a play-date for your kids, too.”

But while Canadian parents and children have fallen in love with their Filipina nannies, some nannies say their working conditions can be less than perfect.

Bautista counts herself lucky to have employers like the Robertsons. When she gathers with other Filipina nannies to socialize—anyone who lives in the band of middle class housing north of the downtown core will likely have seen groups of Filipino women out for walks on their weekends off chat about abusive employers, naughty kids, immigration wrangles and husbands who stray back home.

One Toronto mother says she heard “heartbreaking” stories from two nannies she recently interviewed.

The first woman said she arrived in Toronto recently only to find her employer/ sponsor had hired someone else in her place, leaving her without a job and in breach of the conditions of her visa.

The other interviewee said she left her previous employers—a doctor and lawyer—after they wanted her to move out of their house but stay on as their nanny for the same wages she’d earned as a live-in, effectively adding a huge rent cost to her expenses without any increase in her income. (Live-in nannies earn about $1,500 a month, though they do not pay for lodging.)

The live-in caregiver program can be “a hostage situation” because nannies rely on employment for their immigration status, says this Toronto mother. “I think some employers take advantage of that.”

There are also rumours of unscrupulous agents luring nannies to Canada for a fee even though there’s no job when the nanny gets here, as well as people in the Philippines who offer “accredited” training that is little more than an expensive scam.

Both negative and positive cases aside, there are a number of concerns with the live-in caregiver program, says Geraldine Pratt, a professor at the University of British Columbia who has been studying Canada’s live-in caregiver program for more than a decade.

“Most people will say domestic workers are really well treated by Canadian families, and maybe they are. But they are still working under conditions that Canadians won’t work under. Canadians will not work in people’s homes for the wages that live-in caregivers are paid.”

There is also a concern about skill loss. Many of the women who come here were teachers or nurses back home; they end up “deskilled” after years of nannying, so even with permanent residence status, they are stuck with lower-level jobs. “It’s a very serious loss of skills—for the women who come here and for Canada,” Pratt says.

The UBC professor’s most recent research also looks at the experience of Filipino families once they are reunified in Canada.

“Their kids aren’t doing that well, and that’s really heartbreaking because when you speak to women who come through this program often they say they are doing this for their kids,” she says.

Pratt’s research suggests there is a very high school drop-out rate among Filipino kids who come to Canada. There is a “profound sense of family dislocation” because of the length of time mothers are separated from their children—as long as eight years in some cases. When the children arrive, the mothers frequently work long hours or have multiple jobs, making it more difficult to re-establish family connections. Their children also feel obligated to leave school and get out into the workforce as early as possible to help make ends meet.

Pratt is also concerned the women who come here are often unaware of exactly how long it will take to get through the immigration process.

“I have met one person who got their family here in three-and-a-half years …but just one,” she says.

Bautista says there is a lot of misinformation in the Philippines. Some Filipino nanny agencies tell recruits it only takes a couple of years to bring their families here. Sometimes nannies are encouraged to put false information on their visa applications to speed up the initial immigration process, but this only causes more problems later on when their families want to follow.

Our federal government should accept some responsibility, too, Pratt says.

“I don’t think the Canadian government says clearly it might take five or six years,” she says.

CIC’s Kellam says the government does a lot to make sure nannies coming from the Philippines are well-informed, with orientation sessions held in Manila, for instance. There are also a number of support groups in cities throughout Canada.

Back in Don Mills, Bautista is hardly complaining about her lot, despite the long separation from her family.

Stephen and the two girls have already taken medical examinations that are part of the immigration process, and the family is hopeful they will be reunited this year. Once they arrive, Bautista wants to move up the career ladder, perhaps leaving nannying for a higher-paying health care position.

She’s already started worrying about how her kids will adapt to life here—”I’ve told them they will have to work hard in school, but it will be worth it,” she says—and is trying to figure out how she will pay for Chrystal and Cherry-May to attend college. With her salary, it’s a concern, but with Stephen working, there will be more money to go around. Besides, adds Bautista, “like my husband says, ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.’ ”