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Exploitation sparks legislation

Workers' difficult experiences led Manitoba to enact protection law

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They worked at low-paying service jobs Canadian-born folks didn't want.

And over time, workers from the Philippines raised the bar for labour standards in Manitoba.

Elena Salvador's experience is a good example. She worked more than 10 hours a day, seven days a week for US$200 a month. Not in some sweatshop in a developing country, but in the home of a Winnipeg doctor in 1990.

"They didn't allow me to go out," recalled the Filipina live-in caregiver, who came to Canada with her employer from Saudi Arabia. She went to work in the Middle East as a nanny from the Philippines when she was 40 and didn't know about labour standards in Manitoba.

After working for several months in Winnipeg without a day off, she arranged to attend Sunday mass and met other Catholic Filipinos who were shocked to hear about her work situation.

"I did not know what the rules were," said a sobbing Salvador, remembering that time. At church, she met the late Linda Cantiveros, publisher of the Filipino Journal. She introduced the exploited nanny to Fred DeVilla, who was pushing for fair wages for nannies from the Philippines through a group called Mary Poppins.

DeVilla told Salvador she was far from alone.

Employers were overcharging live-in nannies from the Philippines in boarding fees, and the caregivers were earning hardly any money, said DeVilla.

Salvador's employer was holding her passport and owed her several thousand dollars in unpaid wages, he said. She needed to get out of that home.

"It was like a movie," said DeVilla, recalling the drama of Salvador's escape. He contacted immigration and labour officials. Salvador found another caregiving job and eventually received the back pay she was owed. Her employer left the country.

Today, Salvador works five days a week for another family. The publicity around cases like hers changed things for the estimated 300 live-in caregivers currently working in Manitoba.

In 2009, the Worker Recruitment and Protection Act gave the province's Labour Department increased powers to investigate potential abuses and protect foreign workers.

The groundbreaking legislation also banned recruiters from charging foreign workers fees to help them find jobs in Manitoba. Not all provinces have such protections.

The Three Amigos -- the temporary foreign workers from the Philippines who made headlines last year -- each paid an Alberta recruiter thousands of dollars to get them low-paying service jobs in that province.

When Arnisito Gaviola, Antonio Laroya and Ermie Zotomayor were laid off before their work permits expired, they were offered minimum-wage jobs at a Thompson gas station. The employer told them he'd take care of their work permits.

He didn't, and he was charged with immigration fraud. The three workers were charged with working illegally.

Labour, church groups and the Filipino community rallied to support them. They spent a year in court trying to stay and work in Canada to support their families back in the Philippines. They had job offers, but the Immigration and Refugee Board decided rules are rules and sent them packing.

Today, the three men, all in their 40s, live near Manila, unable to find work at home or abroad, said Diwa Marcelino, with the labour group Damayan.

They can apply to come back to work in Canada one year after their removal. Zotomayor has said he won't. The other two plan to reapply and may return to Manitoba. This time, when they apply for minimum-wage jobs in Canada, they won't pay a recruiter thousands of dollars.

In an email, translated from Tagalog, Gaviola said he can't afford to give up on Canada.

"I am still hoping that our lives would change for the better."

Perhaps his story will turn out as happily as Elena Salvador's did. After all the hardship the nanny experienced, her life did get better.

The mother of five became a Canadian citizen and sponsored a son, her husband and mother to join her in Winnipeg. She has 17 grandkids in the Philippines and three in Winnipeg she sees as often as she can.

"I'm happy because I have come here, to Canada."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2012 J4

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