Maria Sol Pajadura advocates for a better migrant caregiver program as head of Migrante Canada
Talking with Maria Sol Pajadura, a leading voice for the rights of migrant workers in Canada, can get heavy. This makes sense given the details of her advocacy work, which often deals with helping some of the most precarious workers in Canada navigate a hostile system.
At one point in our conversation, in the otherwise cheerful First and Last coffee shop near Casa Loma campus, we had to take a break as she became overwhelmed with memories of the child victims of trauma she used to work with.
These are difficult conversations for Pajadura, not just because of the subject matter but also because her advocacy work is tied so closely to her own experiences as a migrant live-in caregiver. During that time, she said she endured abuse, exploitative work environments and a long separation from her family, as part of her immigration from the Philippines to Canada.
She described days where she would work from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. while her employers went to parties.
“I worked long hours without overtime pay,” she said. “And they said it’s $9 per hour but they gave me $900 a month. So every two weeks they gave me $450, sometimes when they were ‘nice,’ they gave me an extra $50 because I worked on Saturday.”
Ontario’s occupational health and safety act does not apply within private residences in the province, even though these are the workplaces for caregivers.
Pajadura, who graduated from the early childhood education program at George Brown College (GBC), reached out to organizations in Toronto for help. Eventually, through her connections as an organizer in the Philippines, she was able to get a better placement and fulfill her visa requirements.
She later got permanent residency and eventually sponsored her husband and three children to live with her in Canada. Pajadura was separated from her family for 10 years.
In February, Pajadura was elected as the head of Migrante Canada, an umbrella group of Filipino organizations looking to improve life for workers from the Philippines, in Canada and around the world. She comes to the position as the federal government is re-evaluating the live-in caregivers program.
For Syed Hussan, co-ordinator of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, Pajadura’s leadership is vital for migrant movements in Canada.“Maria Sol is a migrant worker and it’s critical that she’s giving direction to the movement,” he said. “Her voice, her expertise, her leadership, her ability to connect with people directly and immediately is the basis of how the migrant worker movement can succeed.”
Her leadership, Hussan added, is coming when migrant caregivers could have their lives affected by the federal government’s forthcoming plan.
“It’s an opportunity and it’s a crisis because many people will be excluded,” he said. “But it’s an opportunity for everybody in the country to commit and be part of a migrant justice movement, led directly by migrant workers, that’s going to impact tens and tens of thousands of racialized women.”
Under the existing program, which is set to expire on Nov. 29, 2019, there is a cap of 5,500 people per year that can be granted permanent residency after finishing two years of work. There are thousands of people caught in a backlog.
Under the previous program, which was in place between 2006 and 2014, an average of over 10,000 people per year were granted permanent resident status. In 2014, the Conservative government placed the 5,500 per year cap and applied more stringent language testing to the process. The existing program has seen less than 2,000 workers and their dependents get permanent residency in the three years it’s been in place.
With the program expiring, Hussan said there is “a lot of fear” among migrant caregivers who do not know what the future holds.
Migrante and other immigrant rights organizations are being consulted by the government on the forthcoming policy. Pajadura is advocating for a fairer system that protects live-in workers’ rights rather than facilitating their abuse.
“They are tied to one employer, whatever abuse they are experiencing they will just endure it because they want to get their 24 months,” she said.
If workers are forced to change employers, it often takes eight months to get a new work permit, so many workers take more than two years to accumulate 24 months of official work.
Like many immigrant students, Pajadura’s education did not start in Canada. In the Philippines, she was a university graduate who got involved in student politics in the 1980s. She worked for 10 years with children traumatized by war, and also taught in secondary school.
But the economic policy of the Philippines is based on sending migrant workers to other countries, and like more than 10 million other Filipinos, she had to leave the country to work, first to Hong Kong, then to Canada.
According to a World Bank report, Filipino migrant workers contributed about $33 billion dollars to the economy of the Philippines in 2017, with the island country seconded only to China and India in the amount of money sent home from overseas.
The economy of the Philippines is largely dependent on remittances, with cash from overseas workers being the largest source of foreign exchange for the country. In other words, the main export of the country is people.
“I felt like I had been deskilled and going to college was a way to regain my confidence,” she said. “I want to go back to work as a daycare teacher but then I can’t. I need a certificate.”
At GBC, Pajadura’s favorite class was a course in social policy, and the things she learned there, she is now putting to use as a migrant workers advocate.