Maids versus Madams: Racism and the Filipina Migrant Domestic Labour Force in Canada

Maids versus Madams: Racism and the Filipina Migrant Domestic Labour Force in Canada

Katie Joyce

Queen's University

Friday, November 11th, 2011

According to the United Nations Development Program's definition, the process of human development is defined as "the process of enlarging people's choices." Three such choices include the choice to lead a long and healthy life, to acquire knowledge, and to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living (UN Development Program cited in Bakan and Stasiulis 1997:120). In recent years, Canada has been identified by the United Nations Human Development Index (UNHDI) as the best country in the world, based on the definition above. Despite Canada's positive reputation, however, many indicators not factored into the United Nations' ranking process would place Canada much lower on the scale. This essay will examine one of these important, yet neglected factors: racism and migrant domestic workers in Canada. I will provide a brief historical analysis to discover how racialization and racist ideology have been perpetuated due to roots in history; analyze the lingering reality of the maintained assumption of White supremacy in mainstream Canadian society; and emphasize the existing racism and marginalization of Filipina migrant domestic workers in Canada. In doing so, my theoretical framework will take an analytical approach to discover the reality of this popular, yet oppressed occupation and the perspectives of the racialized community of Filipina nannies involved. Furthermore, I will argue that there continues to exist a high degree of both systemic and symbolic racism within Canada's migrant domestic labour force, which is either denied or simply unknown. Before I begin my analysis, it is crucial to clarify my reference to migrant domestic workers as predominantly Filipina live-in caregivers. It also must be understood that Third World migrant women of colour refers to women of various ethnicities of the developing world (England and Stiell 1997:340).

A historical basis for existing racism

The majority of Canadian citizens considers their country as one of morality, sensitivity, and harmony, and often fails to recognize and admit Canada's imperialistic past. Legacies of imperialism and racist ideology linger within everyday experiences of racialized communities living among these Canadian citizens every day. Among these communities are migrant women of colour working in the households of predominantly White Canadian families. The majority of these women are of Philippine origin, now working within a gendered, racialized, and highly vulnerable labour force within Canada's economy. These women are considered non-citizens originating from Third World conditions, now working for middle-class, First World families. Citizenship, as described in Bakan and Stasiulis' article, is a legal status granted to deserving individuals on the basis of achievement and natural attributes (1997:115). Throughout history, deserving individuals were those who held the attributes of the White, European male; women, slaves and colonial subjects, and religious, racial, and ethnic minorities were thus excluded from this ideal image of the citizen, and from the rights permitted to one of legal status. This accurately outlines the post-colonial societal paradigm, as hierarchical interactions continue to exist between countries that are predominantly of European decent, and those that were once colonized (Sandhu 2011). Individuals continue to be historically constructed features of modern state ideology that is widely and inaccurately accepted as fact, rather than an ideological construct (Bakan and Stasiulis 1997:115-117). Geraldine Pratt furthers this notion, as she agrees identities are defined by racial constructs (1999:219).

Migration and immigration policies of liberal democratic states continue this historic impulse, and are both implicitly and explicitly discriminatory in gender, class, and race (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005:11). More importantly, the discrimination of these policies is legitimated by international law and its interpretation within Canada's national jurisprudence of immigration control and doctrines of strength and national sovereignty (ibid). As a result, the discourse of modern citizenship has been associated with values of freedom, democracy, and equality. Contrarily, migration policies have in fact broken promises of the emancipation and equality, claimed in the latter discourse (ibid). Through a simultaneous process of inclusion and exclusion, the hierarchical nature of national citizenship and its policies is created and reinforced by "selective criminalization" of migrants – considered a destructive force threatening the character of Canada – and the privilege granted to others (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005:11 and Sharma 2002:18). According to Sharma, the antagonism between "us, Canadians" and "them, foreigners" exists due to the simultaneous organization of "sameness" and "difference" (Sharma 2002:18). This subliminal practice has discursively constructed a subconsciously desired homogenous White Canadian nation (ibid).

Integrated within this historically rooted racism is the legacy of imperialism. Despite the termination of formal colonial dependence, the legacy of imperialism and its combination with modern conditions of indebtedness has generated a large amount of Third World migrant labour (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005:44). As a solution to escalating poverty, income inequality, and unemployment in the Philippines, Filipina migrant labour has become the country's most profitable export and its government's main source of currency to pay off foreign debt and to sustain the global economy (Bautista and Boti 1991). Put bluntly, this pattern of selling labour to the First World for a wage can be accurately compared to the historic practice of slavery.

In 1973, the Temporary Employment Authorization Programme adjusted their policy to allow only short-term work permits to the mainly Afro-Caribbean women migrant domestic workers of the time, rather than the previous provision of immediate permanent resident status (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005:48). This adjustment transformed opportunity-seeking foreign migrants into disposable migrant labourers. Moreover, temporary employment visas granted maximum control to the state and employers over conditions of work and residence. Under the Foreign Domestic Movement (FDM), a policy revised in 1981, foreign domestic workers were eligible to apply for landed immigrant status after two years of live-in service (ibid:49). Despite this optimism, however, the policy included discriminatory regulations. Among these included requirements of educational upgrading to prove migrant domestic workers' self-sufficiency, which was soon challenged by advocates who criticized the unfair implementation of criteria not applied to assess the suitability of all other groups of immigrants (ibid). Reforms were made in 1992; however, not surprisingly, restrictions imposed on the rights of foreign domestic workers continued to exist. Advocates and opposition members of Parliament have argued against these restrictions, stating that the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) "will do little to protect foreign domestic workers, but will further intensify the racialization of paid domestic work" (Cornish 1992:para. 17).

The prolonged assumption of White supremacy

Whiteness can be defined as "a social construction that has created a racial hierarchy that has shaped all of the social, cultural, educational, political, and economic institutions of society. Whiteness is linked to domination and is a form of race privilege invisible to White people who are not conscious of its power. Whiteness, as defined in a cultural studies perspective, is description, symbol, experience, and ideology." (Henry and Tator 2010:384)

Throughout history, racism as a socially constructed ideology has served to justify slavery and imperialism. As this ideology has been reproduced, it "perpetuated the belief that different racial and ethnic groups had inherent attributes which suited them to particular jobs" (Calliste cited in Cornish 1992:para. 3). As a result, there still exists a strict selection process of Filipina migrant domestic workers entering Canada. The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), implemented in June 2002 and amended in 2008, includes selection criteria that emphasize the human capital attributes and skills of preferred immigrants (Henry and Tator 2010:68). These include language skills, education, age, employment experience, and adaptability (ibid). This subtly focuses on the ability of immigrants to contribute to the Canadian economy, while ignoring other, more important and moral purposes of immigration to Canada. Critics of the latter proposition are supporters of the 'fear of immigration' discourse, especially among Canada's conservative demographic (ibid). Much to their dismay, however, the majority of Canadians, either consciously or subconsciously, continues to define those deserving of citizenship as an ideal type. Filipina migrant domestic workers continue to obtain a lack of rights to citizenship, outlining the apparent disapproval among Canadian immigration policy makers and employers. Although national and community laws have extended fundamental rights to "guest workers," institutional racism continues to exist as national laws in most advanced societies maintain practices of discrimination against coloured non-nationals (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005:41).

The racial hierarchies that shape the social, political, and economic power relations between Canada and Third World labour-exporters, such as the Philippines, are closely tied with the neo-Marxist theoretical framework, which claims that the concept of poverty is connected with race because people are racialized into those areas (Sandhu 2011). Consequently, neo-Marxist philosophy largely ties racism to class. Furthermore, the exclusionary and hierarchical tendencies of the process of migration and immigration have intensified with neoliberalism and corporate globalization, driven by the interests of transnational actors and power holders (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005:13). Bakan and Stasiulis accurately expand on this increasing gap between the core and the periphery within the global structure:

The maintenance of the status and entitlements of First World citizens of a particular class, is contingent on the imposition of diminished access to rights and of heightened expectation of obligations among poorer Third World migrants in receiving states (ibid).

The underlying racism maintained within migrant domestic labour

Filipina migrant domestic workers in Canada are vulnerable to abuse, violence, and human rights violations due to historically and socially constructed racist ideology, policy, Whiteness, and hierarchy dissected above. The ideological positioning of non-white women as "non-members" in Canada is legalized and legitimated through racialized migrant labour recruitment schemes (Sharma 2002:18). Because they are not considered citizens, these women are rendered stateless, and are thus granted limited services and no state protection of rights (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005:86). The federal policies surrounding the construction of non-citizenship are key to maintaining the vulnerability of the many Filipina migrant domestic workers in Canada (ibid). Furthermore, these women are often deskilled during the process of migration, and eventually immigration, as many enter Canada as registered nurses, teachers, and secretaries, but are immediately denied employment opportunities due to the two-year live-in requirement of the FDM and LCP, and the federal government's prohibition against educational training "with the objective of producing and maintaining a productive labour force" (Pratt 1999:222). Moreover, these occupations are reserved for citizens of the First World who are given priority and considered better suited (ibid). Due to a variety of factors, it is not uncommon for White, middle-class citizen-employers and their Filipina domestic labourers coming from Third World conditions to see each other as unequal, introducing another dimension of hierarchy within the occupation of migrant domestic work. In reality, long working hours, unpaid overtime, and limited time off highlight the asymmetrical power relations between the domestic worker and her employer, and often result in feelings of isolation and invisibility experienced by the domestic worker (England and Stiell 1997:342). Advocate Fely Villasin undoubtedly speaks on behalf of the rest of this racialized community when she admits that she is always conscious of her inferior position (Bautista and Boti 1991). Emphasizing the notion of a gendered and racialized hierarchy, Cornish recognizes that women are not a homogenous group, but rather experience social and economic relations differently depending on respective class, ethnicity, and status within the labour market (Cornish 1992:para. 18). It can be concluded then that gender, race, and class form "interlocking relational systems of oppression and privilege within which there are a multiplicity of identities, which in turn gain meaning in relation to other [opposite] identities" (England and Stiell 1997:340).

This underlying practice of oppression and marginalization of Filipina migrant domestic workers by White Canadian policy makers and employers is largely influenced by structural adjustment programmes within neoliberal globalization policies previously touched upon. In recent history, it has been contested that these programmes and policies operate to the detriment of the majority of the Third World, "underdeveloped" countries, facilitating the racist process of migrant domestic labour and strengthening unequal relations of power (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005:40):

Adjustment programmes are designed to ensure that indebted countries earn more foreign exchange and that the money they earn is used to repay their loans and to promote private investment. But the actual effect of structural adjustment is to deepen the dependency, poverty and debt… (McAfee 1991:7).

Through implementing these policies, provincial governments also fail to enforce standards regarding nannies' long work hours and lack of adequate pay (Tesher 1996:A2). Instead, the Canadian government has accepted the cheap and exploitable leabour of these women, for both political and economic reasons (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005:40). This raises an important aspect of racialization of migrant domestic workers: the reference of Filipina nannies to concepts of 'supply' and 'demand' objectifies, commodifies, and homogenizes these women. The 'supply' of potential migrant domestic workers in the Philippines and surrounding Third World countries has coincided with a socially and economically constructed 'demand' for live-in childcare in the "core zones of the global system" (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005:1992). This simultaneously perpetuates the global and national hierarchies, creating a vicious circle of racism and resistance. Terry Olayta, a coordinator for the Coalition for the Defense of Migrant Workers Rights addresses her honest and provoking perspective to the majority of ignorant white Canadian citizens by stating, "We are the main export product, the pineapples, the bananas" (Tesher 1996:A2).

Key to the process of racialization within this occupation and economic "solution" is the ideology that a domestic worker's worth is evaluated relative to the poverty (or wealth) of her country of origin (England and Stiell 1997:342). In this sense, it is not surprising to discover that European nannies are "accorded more prestige," receive higher salary, and better overall treatment (ibid). The terminology used to differentiate between coloured and White caregivers – 'domestics' versus 'nannies' – emphasizes this distinction, and positions coloured 'domestics' next to slaves on the global hierarchy (Arat-Koç and Balkan and Stasiulis cited in England and Stiell 2005:342). Despite this, according to Bakan and Stasiulis, rather than preventing or "ameliorating" the threat of racism and abuse, Canada's LCP serves to institutionalize this threat (2005:47). In fact, the LCP was structured this way despite knowledge of the high level of vulnerability and restriction among the pool of Filipina migrant domestic worker applicants (ibid). This portrays the federal government's insistence upon maintaining a powerful institutional mechanism to control the migration process and the future of migrant domestic workers. Because of the LCP's live-in requirement, the boundaries between home and work, and public and private have been blurred and not accurately defined. This has allowed for the facilitation of explicit racism and further exploitation of migrant domestic workers, who hesitate to protest for a variety of reasons: "Domestic workers are reluctant to escape such imposition…because of their requisite live-in status and the perpetual threat of deportation associated with workplace conflict or employer reprisals" (Bakan and Stasiulis cited in England and Stiell 1997:341).


Upon entrance into "glorious and free" Canada, coloured migrant domestic workers, predominantly of Philippine origin, are stripped of basic freedom and immediately constitute a captive labour force in Canada's modern capitalist state, which prioritizes and serves the interests of the capitalist class. These women continue working within a gendered, racialized, and highly vulnerable and unbalanced economy. Furthermore, they continue to be subjects of structural discrimination, ranging from physical abuse to the denial of fair wages and adequate benefits (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005:86). Unfortunately, because this abuse takes place within the confines of an employer's private home, enforcement and regulation of procedures to improve conditions are rare (ibid:52). Moreover, as long as the Canadian federal government is prepared to enforce live-in migrant domestic labour as a prerequisite of Canadian citizenship, there will remain little incentive for policy makers and employers to raise wages and improve conditions (Cornish 1992:para. 16). As the Coalition to Reject Intolerance in Québec – a coalition of groups that work within immigrant and minority communities in Montréal – wisely recognizes, "There can be no constructive debate until there is recognition of the true dynamics between the 'us' – White, predominantly Catholic majority and, what has been termed as a homogenous 'them' – the diverse minority and immigrant populations found in Québec" (Henry and Tator 2010:70).

This can be accurately paralleled with the theoretical framework of othering, in which the 'us' versus 'them' discourse exists (Sandhu 2011). Other networks of resistance include INTERCEDE (International Coalition to End Domestics' Exploitation), established in 1979 (Bakan and Stasiulis 2005:77) and the Toronto Organization for Domestic Workers (England and Stiell 1997:343). However, protests are not given much attention by power holders, as conditions in Canada are "not very serious compared to those in the Middle East and Asia" (Tesher 1996:A2). It is important for Canada to realize the moral implications of racism that exists within migrant domestic labour, without comparing conditions to those of other employing countries.

After historically analyzing racism existing among the migrant domestic labour force, and by considering the prevailing Whiteness and thus legitimization of racist ideology in mainstream Canadian society, it is obvious that the struggle of Filipina migrant domestic workers in Canada is an everyday phenomenon that the majority of Canadians fail to recognize despite Canada's highly reputable ranking. This struggle is symbolic of today's controversial process of creating and reconceptualizing societies of equal citizens of equal right and opportunity, which has simultaneously been increasingly challenged in recent years as international migration to Canada continues to grow.

Works Cited

Bakan, Abigail B. and Daiva Stasiulis. 1997. "Negotiating Citizenship: The Case of Foreign Domestic Workers in Canada." Feminist Review 57: 112-139.

Bakan, Abigail B. and Daiva Stasiulis. 2005. Negotiating Citizenship: Migrant Women in Canada and the Global System. Ontario: University of Toronto Press Inc.

Bautista, Florchita and Marie Boti. (Writers, Producers, and Directors). (1991). Brown Women, Blond Babies [Film]. Productions Multi-Monde.

Cornish, Cynthia. 1992. "Unfree Wage Labour, Women and the State: Employment Visas and Foreign Domestic Workers in Canada." MA thesis, Department of Sociology, University of Victoria, Victoria BC. Retrieved 6 November 2011 (

England, Kim and Bernadette Stiell. 1997. "Domestic Distinctions: constructing difference among paid domestic workers in Toronto." Gender, Place and Culture 4(3): 339-359.

Henry, Frances and Carol Tator. 2010. The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society. Ontario: Nelson Education Ltd.

McAfee, Kathy. 1991. Storm Signals: Structural Adjustment and Development Alternatives in the Caribbean. London: Zed Books and Oxfam America (Note: Although McAfee's scholarship focuses on economic issues surrounding Caribbean migrant domestic workers, the quotation that I have incorporated into my essay also pertains to conditions of Filipina migrant domestic workers in Canada. Furthermore, it is important to understand the historic influences on current conditions of this occupation, as much of this history lies within the experiences of migrant domestic workers of Caribbean origin.)

Pratt, Geraldine. 1999. "From Registered Nurse to Registered Nanny: Discursive Geographies of Filipina Domestic Workers in Vancouver, B.C." Economics Geography 75(3): 215-236.

Sandhu, Gurjit. 2011. IDIS302 class lectures at Queen's University.

Sharma, Nandita. 2002. "Immigrant and Migrant Workers in Canada: Labour Movements, Racism and the Expansion of Globalization." Canadian Woman Studies 21(4)/22(1): 18-25.

Tesher, Ellie. 1996. "Foreign domestics need our help." The Toronto Star, October 16,