Racism and Foreign Domestic Workers in Canada

Unfree Wage Labour, Women and the State

Cynthia Cornish



The present study examines federal government programs to admit women to Canada as foreign domestic workers, their exclusion from labour standards legislation, the conditions of work and wage-rates which result from this exclusion, and attempts to organize foreign domestic workers. The thesis maintains that foreign domestic workers represent a modern form of unfree wage labour since they are required to remain in domestic work as a condition of entry to Canada. In this sense, foreign domestic labour is unfree because of the legal restrictions on the right of workers to change employer, occupation and/or industry.

The study also examines the intersection of gender, class and ethnicity in the foreign domestic labour process. The need for domestic workers is increasing being met by women from the less economically developed areas of the world and the recruitment of these women on temporary employment visas places some of the burden of day care and domestic labour in Canada on disadvantaged women and nations. It is argued that the employment of foreign domestic workers in the homes of privileged families gives rise to differential experiences of oppression by women of different classes and ethnic origins.

Data for the study are taken from the following sources: employment records to admit foreign domestic workers between January, 1980 and December 31, 1987 supplied by the Research Division of Planning and Research Directorate of the Employment and Immigration Commission, interviews with foreign domestic workers, labour lawyers, community activists, employment agencies, immigration officials and previous studies of foreign domestic workers in Canada and in other advanced industrial nations.




Each year thousands of women enter Canada on temporary and restrictive employment visas to work in the homes of privileged families as paid domestic workers. The conditions of work and wage-rates foreign domestic workers receive in Canada have been the subject of a growing number of studies and reports.[1] The general conclusion of these studies is that foreign domestic workers have historically been undervalued and suffer because of the exclusion of paid domestic work from the same labour standards protections and health and safety regulations which protect Canadian and landed immigrants.[2]

Writers attribute the underpayment and exclusion of foreign domestic workers from labour standards protections to a variety of factors. Renaud (1984), for example, argues that domestic work, whether paid or unpaid, is not recognized as important because it is part of the general devaluation of women and the stereotypical view of domestic work as "women's work". Bolaria and Li stress the status of foreign domestic workers as a modern form of indentured labour (Bolaria and Li, 1988). They argue that while free wage labour is more economical for capital because it economizes on the overhead cost of production, ethnic minority women are still being recruited as a form of modern indentured labour for low wage jobs which are avoided by most workers in Canada (Bolaria and Li, 1988: 205). Bolaria and Li maintain that the assignment of minorities to low wage jobs is made possible by economic conditions in the country of origin coupled with racist ideologies which justify the exploitation of ethnic minorities.

Calliste (1989) also stresses the impact of colonialism and racism on the selection and treatment of foreign domestic workers. Calliste maintains that racism was constructed as an ideology to justify slavery, colonialism and imperialism and that, as this ideology was reproduced, it "perpetuated the belief that different racial and ethnic groups had inherent attributes which suited them to particular jobs" (Calliste, 1989: 135). She maintains that this ideology of women from the Caribbean as inferior, coupled with sexism, results in the relegation of these women to domestic work and a preference by immigration officials for nationalities other than "black"[3] for landed immigration status.

While Silvera (1989) recognizes the impact of racism and sexism on foreign domestic workers, she also calls attention to the class relations of "woman-as-mistress" and the "woman-as-servant". In this view, the subordination of women from the less economically developed areas of the world as paid domestic workers in the homes of privileged women challenges the notion of a shared sisterhood between women and raises serious questions for feminist thought and the women's movement.

Arat-Koc (1989) also draws attention to the problem which the foreign domestic labour process raises for feminism and the women's movement. For Arat-Koc the supply of foreign domestic workers as a source of cheap "captive labour" does not solve the crisis in day care in Canada, but instead places part of the burden of day care and domestic work on women from the less economically developed areas of the world. She points out that, unlike other workers in Canada, foreign workers on employment visa do not enjoy the basic freedom to leave a particular job or employer and as such constitute a captive labour force in the sense that they are bound to domestic work by legal restrictions in Canada and are largely unable to return to their country of origin because of economic conditions.

Like Arnopoulous (1979), Bolaria and Li (1988) and Satzewich (1990), Arat-Koc, attributes the legal restrictions on the movement of foreign domestic workers within the labour market to the problem of attracting sufficient numbers of workers to domestic and child care work. She argues that without a source of captive labour which can be channelled and restricted to the domestic sphere, the "crisis" in the provision of day care for children would be exacerbated. In this view, the function of employment visas is to create a labour force for an occupation which cannot attract Canadian or landed immigrants because of the low wages and conditions of work.

However, while these studies have greatly advanced the understanding of the recruitment, deployment and treatment of foreign domestic workers, there are four main issues which require further examination and elaboration. Foremost is the need to update the analysis of recent changes to the program to admit foreign domestic workers as caregivers. In the spring of 1992 the new Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) was introduced to replace the Foreign Domestic Movement Program (FDMP) which, in turn, was instituted in 1981 to protect foreign domestic workers under the employment visa system. The study focuses on the impact of the various programs to admit foreign domestic workers, including the LCP, and assesses their impact on the working conditions within this sector.

Second, while the literature on foreign domestic workers in Canada address some of the complex issues concerning gender and racism few have thoroughly explored the dynamics of gender and ethnicity in the context of class. In fact while most studies of foreign domestic labour note that the situation of foreign domestic workers in Canada is a feminist issue and call on all women to unite to fight the oppression of foreign domestic workers, they largely fail to examine the barriers to this mobilization in terms of the contradictory economic interests of "maids" and "madams" (Cock, 1989) or what Silvera calls the "woman-as-mistress" and the "woman-as-servant" (Silvera, 1989) dynamic.

Third, the status of foreign domestic workers as "captive" or unfree wage labour has not been systematically examined in terms of assumptions concerning the importance of free wage labour under advanced industrial capitalism. It has generally been assumed that because free wage labour is completely commodified and therefore more economical and efficient, it would therefore replace unfree labour under capitalist relations of production (Pentland, 1981; also see Bolaria and Li, 1988; Satzewich, 1989).

In this sense unfree wage labour refers to relations of production in which labour power is recruited and deployed through the use of extra-economic coercion such as physical, legal and/or political restrictions on the right of workers to change occupations, industry or employer. Thus, unlike free wage labour, unfree wage labour is only partially commodified because it is restricted to particular sectors of the economy (Miles, 1987). On the other hand, like free wage labour, unfree wage labour is commodified in the sense that labour power is sold by the worker for a wage (Miles, 1987). Therefore, unfree wage labour is similar to slave labour because it is tied to a particular job (Corrigan, 1977; Miles, 1987; Bolaria and Li, 1988; Cohen, 1988; Brass, 1989). The debate over the role of unfree and free wage labour under capitalism is examined in chapter three below.

The fourth issue involves the role of the modern capitalist state in creating unfree wage labour. There has been a tendency to conceptualize the state as either a neutral institutions which protects the rights of all citizens equally or, on the other hand, as an institution which serves the interests of the capitalist class. The exclusion of foreign domestic workers from labour standards protections and the selective use of employment visas to meet labour market demand, raises serious questions for these two theories of the state.

The following chapters examine these four issues in depth. Chapter two addresses the role of gender, ethnicity and class in the lives of foreign domestic workers and the organizations which represent them. It is maintained that the situation of foreign domestic workers challenges any oversimplified notion of "sisterhood" and shows that the lives of working class and ethnic minority women cannot be understood, nor can adequate remedies for the elimination of discrimination be found, without analyzing the significance of gender, ethnicity, class and status within the labour market.

Chapter three examines the debate over the role of unfree wage labour. Following Corrigan (1977), Cohen (1988) and Brass (1989) it is argued that the scale, use and creation of unfree wage labour under capitalism, despite economic recessions, suggests that unfree wage labour is far more integral to the capitalist mode of production than once thought. Rather than simply helping to reproduce capitalism, unfree wage labour must be thought of as one form of labour recruitment and deployment within capitalism. As such unfree wage labour is not a "necessary anomaly" as Miles (1987) would have it; it is in fact simply necessary. In this view, therefore, while there are differences between types of unfree labour, there is also a sense of "historical continuity rather than rupture" (Cohen, 1988).

Chapter three also argues that state policies governing both free and unfree, settler and non-settler immigration are best understood in terms of inter and intra-class struggles and compromises. This relational class analysis helps to explain why the use of unfree wage labour has not been deployed throughout the occupational structure, but has historically been restricted to unorganized sectors of the economy such as domestic, agricultural and textile work.

Chapter four examines the historical use of unfree labour in Canada. While slave, convict, indentured and contract labour were important sources of unfree labour in earlier stages of economic development, unfree wage labour is now being admitted on restrictive and temporary employment visas to meet labour market demand in low waged sectors of the economy. The chapter concludes that the use of unfree wage labour in both its settler and non-settler form, not only helps to meet structural imbalances in labour market demand by supplying workers who are not free to change occupation, industry or employer, but also de-proletarianizes workers as a condition of entry to the country.

Chapter five examines recent programs to admit foreign domestic workers, the main source countries from which foreign domestic labour is recruited and the lack of adequate employment standards legislation to protect foreign domestic workers. It is maintained that as long as the federal government is prepared to force workers to remain in domestic work as a condition of entry into Canada, there will be little incentive for employers to raise wages or improve working conditions. As such, the supply of unfree labour tends to expand within the sectors where it is deployed and this tends to create further disincentives for landed immigrants and indigenous workers to enter paid domestic work.

The final chapter summarizes the findings of the study, arguing that while the new LCP was heralded by the federal government as an improvement over past foreign domestic work programs, it will be to the further disadvantage of foreign domestic workers from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. As advocacy and community groups and opposition members of Parliament have argued, the LCP will do little to protect foreign domestic workers, but will further intensify the racialization of paid domestic work.

It is also concluded that the role of women from the less economically developed areas of the world as unfree domestic labour in Canada indicates that the role of women in civil society and in production must be approached from the perspective of the differences between women since women are not a homogeneous group, but experience social and economic relations in quite different ways depending on class, ethnicity and status within the labour market. This highlights the importance of rethinking feminist analysis in order to examine the historical and specific manners in which the intersection of gender, ethnicity and class is constructed.

Furthermore, modern forms of unfree wage labour are not relics of pre-capitalist social relations of production, but are created through modern state legislation governing immigration. It is argued that the internationalization of labour, and the use of women to meet labour market demand in low wage sectors of capitalist economies, indicate a need to examine paid work in the domestic sphere not as a mechanical articulation of different modes of production but in terms of the uneven and combined development of capitalism on a global scale. In this view unfree wage labour in the domestic sphere indirectly supports capital by freeing highly skilled female labour from unpaid domestic service and facilitates capital accumulation by lowering the costs of the reproduction of the workforce. The process of lowering the cost of reproduction transfers some of the cost of maintaining the Canadian labour force to the less economically developed areas of the world; those countries which can least afford to support privileged families and employers in Canada. The study of gender from an international perspective on the linkages between international labour circulation, capital accumulation and paid domestic work is an important area of research which is underdeveloped and which requires further research.

1.1 Research Methodology

The study is based on both quantitative and qualitative data. Previously unpublished statistics on the number and origin of foreign domestic workers were compiled from employment visas issued by Employment and Immigration Canada (EIC) for all workers admitted to Canada between January 1, 1980 and March 31, 1988. Records of employment contain information regarding the seven digit occupational classification as listed in The Canadian Classification and Dictionary of Occupations, 7th ed., (CCDO), gender, country of origin and year, month and day of issue as well as other confidential information. EIC provided the occupation, gender, country and date of issue for all employment visas within the time frame noted above for this study.

To examine the number of foreign domestic workers admitted to Canada by year and country of origin, an occupational category of "domestic work" was constructed from CCDO codes for work related to child care, house keeping services and personal service (see Appendix A for a full list of specific occupations). Since this classification may be more inclusive than used in other works, there may be some discrepancy between the numbers reported in the present study and other reports. The occupations, country of origin (see Appendix B for a list of country of origin codes) and date of issue were then cross tabulated. These data represent an original contribution to the analysis of employment visas and the study of foreign domestic workers in Canada.

The use of records of employment to estimate the number of foreign domestic workers in Canada has a number of limitations.[4] First, the number of employment visas issued by EIC reflects only the approval by the federal government to allow an employer to hire a specific employee. However, there may be cases when visas are issued but the employer decides not to offer employment, or the employee decides not to accept employment. In both cases, an employment visa is issued. Since the data provided by EIC does not distinguish between waived employment visas and those actually used, the data reported here may over-estimate the number of foreign domestic workers admitted to Canada. This problem is common to all the studies and reports of foreign domestic workers previously published since estimates of the number of foreign domestic workers are based on employment visas issued by EIC.

A second problem with these data is that foreign domestic workers may receive more than one employment visas in any one year since a new permit is issued if a foreign domestic worker receives permission to change employer. While changing employers is only available, and difficult to obtain, for those workers in special programs (see chapter five below), this may also contribute to an over-estimation of the number of foreign domestic workers in the country for any given year.

Third, some foreign domestic workers are not issued visas because they are exempt from that requirement (e.g., foreign domestic workers employed by foreign diplomats). Nor do the data include foreign domestic workers in the country illegally. Both of these factors may lead to an under-estimation of the number of foreign domestic workers in the country in a given year.

One of the most accurate methods of determining the number of foreign domestic workers employed in Canada would be through employer or employee income tax returns. While this would not count workers illegally in the country and foreign diplomats, it would provide a more accurate method of estimating the size of the population than employment records. Unfortunately, this type of information is confidential and, as such, is not available for research purposes.

Qualitative information regarding the foreign domestic labour process, conditions of work, government policy and the role of advocacy groups was obtained through unstructured interviews with foreign domestic workers, government officials, community activists, immigrant service workers, researchers and lawyers.

Unstructured interviews with foreign domestic workers were conducted in Vancouver, West Vancouver, Victoria and the lower Mainland between 1985 and 1990. The purpose of these interviews was to gain in-depth knowledge of the conditions of work and the foreign domestic labour process in general. Respondents interviewed for the study were selected through a non-random sampling technique because an enumeration of the entire population of foreign domestic workers is not available.

Two strategies were adopted in drawing the sample. First, because of my association with a number of multicultural, ethno-specific and immigrant servicing agencies, I was introduced to a number of foreign domestic whom I asked for interviews. Second, I also approached foreign domestic workers in the public parks and shopping centres in Victoria and in the affluent areas of West Vancouver and Vancouver as they sat and talked, and supervised their charges. These two sampling procedures were adopted in order to avoid some of the bias which is often associated with non-random samples (Babbie, 1983). However, because of the non-random sampling techniques employed, there is no way of determining whether the sample is representative of the foreign domestic work population as a whole (Babbie, 1983).

A second problem with the sampling method was the relatively large number of workers who refused to be interviewed. Approximately sixty foreign domestic workers were approached and 26 consented to be interviewed. Those who spoke at all gave the fear of jeopardizing their landed immigrant status or their work situation as the main reasons for not participating in the study. Only the contacts I had within various ethnic minority communities and the time I was willing to spend with each person generated the trust necessary for some of the respondents to discuss their conditions of work and their experiences.

In addition to the problem of self-selection, the validity and reliability of the data may also been jeopardized by interviewer bias, maturation effects and the interaction of interviewer bias and maturation (Stanley and Campbell, 1963; Babbie, 1983). Because of the need to understand the labour process, multiple interviews were conducted with individual respondents. In research extending over time the respondent and interviewer relationship changes and increases the problems of maturation because of experience and reflection (Babbie, 1983). To mitigate against problems of sampling and research design, the thesis relies on relevant secondary sources gathered across Canada over the past two decades using different research designs. This triangulation of research methods coupled with the different areas of the country and sources helps to overcome some of the biases which may affect the reliability and validity of the results of the qualitative research (see Babbie, 1983)

Three issues stood out from the unstructured interviews with foreign domestic workers which I would not have otherwise been sensitive to. First, all of the respondents I contacted were responsible to, or were employed directly by women. This highlighted the issue of the oppression of women by women and the class dynamics underlying the employer/employee relationship. Second, because the foreign domestic workers I came to know were intent on gaining landed immigrant status, their situation in Canada as part of a bonded forced rotational system emerged as one of the most salient issues. Third, I soon discovered that the employment of foreign domestic workers was not simply by privileged European women, but employers were often of same ethnic background as the employee. Thus, I found Iranian domestic workers employed by Iranian families, Filipino domestic workers employed by Filipino families and European families employed by European families. The reason given for employment within the same ethnic group was that families want to pass down their distinctive cultural heritage and workers from different ethnic groups could not impart what that aspect which was considered to be fundamental to maintaining culture and even family life. As a result, it became increasingly important to examine the foreign domestic labour process not just in terms of the racialization of domestic labour, but in the context of the intersection of class and ethnicity.

To complement the interviews with foreign domestic workers I also examined all the applications for employment from one foreign domestic employment agency in Vancouver. The files on applicants included documentation on education, marital status, dependents, work experience, hobbies and other information regarding their suitability in Canada as domestic workers. This documentary evidence allowed me to more accurately assess the hypothesis that foreign domestic workers are not simply unskilled workers, or part of a displaced peasantry.

I also became involved with community activists representing or working with foreign domestic workers through my involvement both as a political analyst with the Canadian Anti-racism Education and Research Society (CAERS)[5] and as an organizer with the British Columbia Organization to Fight Racism (BCOFR). I also attended West Coast Domestic Workers' Association meetings and conferences sponsored by the Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Service Agencies (AMSSA). These activities provided insight into the governments response, or lack of response, to the issue of forcing women into domestic work, the lack of protection under employment standards legislation, and the importance of ending the system of bonding workers to jobs (see Flavelle, 1992 and Heap, 1992).

I also conducted unstructured interviews with government officials, immigration lawyers, and representatives of immigrant servicing and minority advocacy groups in Vancouver, Victoria and Toronto. Appendix C contains a list of those interviewed and their affiliations. These interviews were intended to broaden my understanding of the issues affecting foreign domestic work and government policy.

The entire study, including tables and other material, can be downloaded for a donation of $5.00 to CAERS. Goto donate and email info@stopracism.ca for the download.