Caregivers have made a difference
Ellie Tesher


SECRETARY'S DAY passed quietly yesterday. That's largely because downsized businesses got rid of most of their office assistants, leaving other staff to labour on their own with computers, voice mail and e-mail.

But for many working mothers, and some fathers, too, there's an indispensable human aide who remains largely unsung: the caregiver/housekeeper. Whether it's the professional parent's live-in nanny or the daytime babysitter, these women are the backup supports without whom many companies would lack steady employees.

I propose a Nanny's Day, a celebration of the domestic workers who provide families with security and comfort that their children, elderly parents or disabled relatives are being looked after while they themselves earn a living.

Matching appreciative employers with trustworthy domestic workers was hard for both sides when I started working more than two decades ago; everybody went by their own standards with little accountability. But my family was extremely lucky when the children were young and later when my mother had Alzheimer's.

As more women opted for work outside their homes, Canada opened the immigration doors wider to domestic workers. They came in waves, mostly from the Caribbean in the 1960s, then in larger numbers from the Philippines in the1970s, escaping martial law and economic hardship. These women often left their own families, sending home their Canadian earnings and dreaming of bringing their families here.

The caregivers arrived with temporary visas as live-ins, and had to return home to apply as landed immigrants. According to Sely Villasin, co-ordinator of Intercede, an advocacy organization, it was a situation open to abuse by employers. Sadly, there were far too many who treated their "help" badly, with long hours, unreasonable demands, minimum salaries and no privacy.

But campaigns by Intercede, as well as growing demand from working mothers, brought about the current live-in caregiver program in 1992, which permits domestic workers to obtain their landed immigrant status from within Canada.

The organization fought for protections for these immigrants under existing employment standards, workers' compensation and human rights laws. You can bet that every successful working woman who has children or dependent parents has relied on one or more of them.

Recently, I received an e-mail from one, Claudette Charles, who wrote: "I remember your first day going to work. I was there." I replied that I couldn't have gone down that path without her, or the two other remarkable women who came into our family life as babysitters in the '70s.

Claudette and her sister Irma Morris are from Trinidad. Irma arrived through a domestic workers' employment agency. Her first job off the island had been in Italy, at the grand home of the country's vice-president. My suburban Willowdale sidesplit and two rambunctious youngsters were a comedown but she put up with us, and gave me the freedom to start freelance writing.

After three years, Irma went home, got her "landed" and came back to study at George Brown College, graduating as an activation co-ordinator for the elderly; she holds that position at Villa Colombo. Claudette took over from her sister, and I went to work full-time. Her adjustment to being away was harder, yet she triumphed, as do so many determined immigrants.

After she got her landed status, Claudette returned to study. She's now an office manager with the Ministry of the Attorney-General, is taking a bachelor of arts degree part- time, and raised two children here.
J
anet Baldwin, a young woman from England who wanted to live away from home with a family, stayed with us for three years. She is now back in England working as a magistrate, married with two college-age kids. Janet, Irma and Claudette will attend my son's wedding next month.

My family's experience is not isolated. One former Filipino nanny insisted on making baby food for her employer's infants; she's a freelance beautician now. And there are thousands more hard-working women behind the doors of two-income households, and in nursing homes with those people's parents.

"If the work is decent and pays decently, there are women happy to do it," Villasin says. Yet for all the contributions these truly "caregiving" women bring to other women's lives, and to the economy of this country as well as their own, they are not appreciated enough.

A formalized Nanny's Day would be nice. Showing appreciation every day with good wages, kindness and consideration is more important.