Wage Earners Experience


The Working and Living Conditions of Domestic Servants from 1940s toPresent

The demand for domestic servants in Canada has always been high. Themajority of domestic workers are migrants and females. Domestic workis seen as a traditional woman’s role and hence it is notastonishing that most domestic servants are females. From the 1940s,the migrants move to Canada in search of work as an escape fromoppression as well as economic devastation experienced at home. Theaspiration of an improved life has been the reason why most migrantsmove into Canada to work as domestic servants. Interviews andresearch demonstrate that during the past half century domesticservants faced great exploitation by employers and the Canadianstate. However, there have been notable changes over time, as therole of domestic servants in Canada becomes more relevant. Theresearch features two interviewees aged 53 and 38. It aims atanalyzing the changing living, as well as working conditions fordomestic servants in Canada from the 1940s.

Historical Background of Domestic Servants

Close to 98% of domestic employees were and progress to be femalesdue to the ancient established beliefs that link women toreproductive domestic work, while males are associated withproductive work (Fauve-Chamoux,2004). The Canadian immigration policy during the 1940slargely favored domestic servants to the 1950s, due to the Cold War,which hindered the relationship amid North America and EasternEurope. Domestic servants in the 1940s would get a landed immigrantstatus following their arrival in Canada, a period when just whiteswere allowed to work in the position (Bakan &amp Stasiulis, 1994).The sequence of permitting just white, women Europeans to work asdomestic servants progressed up to 1955 when the administrationprolonged its immigration policy to involve females from third-worldnations due to massive shortages of whites enthusiastic to moveoverseas and become domestic workers. As a result, the Canadianadministration changed its immigration policy concerning the awardingof landed citizenship. The Federal Government started to issueconditional impermanent work permits in 1973 in place of landedimmigrant status to all immigrant domestic employees that werenon-white. Contrary, white European immigrants were categorized aslanded immigrants.

The working conditions for the non-white servants involved instantdeportation following the end of their contracts by bosses oremployees. Non-whites were also expected to stay with their employersfor the period they would be working in Canada. Following tremendouscriticism concerning the partiality of Canada’s immigration guidingprinciple, the government established the Foreign DomesticMovement Program in 1981 to 1992 (Fauve-Chamoux,2004). The program made it possible for domestic employeesthat had temporal employee permits to apply for the landed statusfollowing two years of domestic service work in Canada (Hodge, 2006).The program has since been replaced with the Live-In CaregiverProgram, which progresses to be effective. The program resembles theprevious one, though it mandates that employees have educationalqualification, which resembles Canada’s grade 12. Canada has had ahistory of discrimination towards domestic servants through itsimmigration policies, which have made it possible for employers andthe administration to exploit domestic servants.


Two interviewees have been included in the research. Both aremigrant domestic servants that have worked in Canada for a longperiod. The interviewees are Marla and Carina aged 53 and 38respectively. The birth names of the interviewees have been changedto protect identity, because the individuals are seekinglanded-immigrant permits. Marla has worked for a number of familieson two to three year contracts. The same applies for Carina, who hasworked for different Canadian families. Both interviewees have leftbehind their families, including husbands and children in their homenations. Most of the money they earn is sent back home to cater forthe children.

Market for Domestic Servants in Canada

Since the 1940s, the market for domestic servants in Canada has beenon the rise. Over the years, more immigrants move to Canada to workin Canadians homes. Marla says that she prefers to look for work inCanada because for all the years she has been in the country gettingwork as a domestic worker has been easy, which is also expressed byCarina.

In the past half century, females from western nations have joinedthe labor market in high numbers. Towards the last half of 1990s,almost 43% of wage earners were women with 70% being married females(Arat-Koc, 1999). The figures interest women’s movements who pushfor reduced traditionally created gender roles. However, some maleshave not reacted to the shifting labor patterns as expected, sincethey still choose not to help women with domestic work like takingcare of the children and managing house chores. Thus, femalesprogress to be largely accountable for most of the domestic work inaddition to their taking part in paid labor. The outcome is that morefamilies resorted to and are still resorting to employing migrantdomestic servants to ensure that women continue to participate inpaid labor (Arat-Kok, 1999). Middleclass and high-class familiesutilize their privileged social standing to evade socially createdgender roles through exploitation of services provided by domesticservants. It is apparent that the demand for domestic servants inCanada is on the rise as more women progress to join the labor force.

Towards the end of the former century, above 5000 women domesticservants have moved to Canada on a yearly basis. Most of theseemployees come from non-industrialized countries, like the Caribbeanand Philippines (Hodge, 2006). There is a scarcity of Canadiancivilians ready to work as domestic servants this is because the jobis defined as a work of Citizenship as well as Immigration Canada.The workers are paid poorly, which fails to attract civilians to thejob. This makes it apparent that there is no competition amidstCanadians in the sector of domestic servants. In addition, there isno competition among migrant domestic employees due to the increasingdemand for their services. Provided more women that are Canadian jointhe labor force, then the services of domestic servants will belargely required.

Domestic Servants Profile


In the 1940s to the 80s, most of the domestic servants wereuneducated. They preferred to work as domestic workers because of thelow or lack of education requirements needed. However, from the 90s,more domestic servants are persons that have at least high schooleducation. They seek employment in Canada due to joblessness in theirhome countries. Hodge (2006) demonstrates that the domestic servantsare people that are educated, but have been unable to get employmentfrom their home countries. These employees may have been working intheir countries, but because the nations are not industrialized, thepayment is less compared to that of working as domestic servants inCanada.

Both interviewees state that it was not possible to provide for theirbasic needs while in their nations despite being educated touniversity and high school level. Marla has completed her schoolingto high school and prior to moving to Canada was working as anaccountant in her home country. The shift from an accountant to adomestic servant is not pleasing, but she states that it is better asit makes it simpler to provide for her family. It is unfortunate thatCanada does not consider the educational qualifications of domesticservants that have moved to Canada in search of better jobs.Employers will only hire persons that have attained Canadianeducation and worked in Canada for professional roles. As a result,it is completely hard for domestic servant migrants that have thebest education from their home country to get employment that meetstheir academic qualification while in Canada. It has been thesituation from the 1940s, as domestic servants’ progress to work ininsecure occupations.

Skills and Earnings

Labor is either reproductive or productive. Domestic service isreproductive because it is associated with the traditional role offemales doing housework. Domestic servants in the 1940s to early 90searned less income. This is because the work was deemed as natural aswell as non-productive. In addition, it did not require any skillsand as a low-status job, employees could only earn low salaries(Grandea &amp Kerr, 1998). However, with the new millennium, thedemand for domestic workers has made it possible for them to demandbetter payment. Marla notes that when she started working in Canada,she had to accept the money paid by her employer. Nevertheless,having worked for several years, her skills have improved and she isnow able to demand better pay. Her immediate former and current jobspay better when compared to the first. She also notes that employersnow demand that servants have skills in the capability to cook,washing, cleaning and catering for children as well as old persons,and complete other roles associated with domestic work. Carina on theother hand, says that she thinks the salary she gets is bettercompared to that of former domestic servants who started working inthe roles in historic years. She also notes that all her employerswere interested in knowing her skills unlike Marla whose firstemployer was less concerned about her skills.

Working Conditions

Since the 1940s, working as a domestic servant has always beenstressful. Workers have had to complete many tasks within undefinedwork schedules. To date they continue to face the same challenges ofexposure to risks. However, the 1940s to 1980s were worse as domesticservants resembled slaves (MacDowell&amp Radforth, 2006). During the period, they were compelledto work overtime yet did not get any compensation for the extraworking hours. Employers were also not understanding of the nature ofwork and often harassed servants that were unable to finish dutieswithin the expected time. The situations may have changed over theyears, as employers have become more understanding and considerpaying for overtime. Domestic servants are often prone to harmfulcleaning detergents, risky situations and stress because of having todo too much work (Arat-Koc, 1999). In rare cases do domestic servantsget training on hazards they may encounter while working. Thecleaning agents they use might contain instructions and warning ontheir dangers, but since most of the domestic servants areimmigrants, they are unable to read and understand the perils theyare exposed to. The employers rarely take the time to inform theiremployees on the dangers arising from their work, or use of somecleaning agents.

The interviewees express concerns over their working conditions. Forinstance, Carina states that in some instances, her employer hasexpected her to complete tasks, which she felt were risky. Even ininstances where the employee demonstrates concern over the dangerousnature of their tasks, the employer assumes that the work is notrisky. Carina narrates an incidence when she was asked to clean alarge chandelier forcing her to hang from the second floor, just afew feet from its railing. Despite risking a fall severally, the taskhad to be completed as expected by the employer. The private natureof domestic service makes it hard to prove that their work ishazardous. Employees complete many duties within a day (Aronson &ampNeysmith, 1998). Someone working as a domestic servant may be hiredin a home where they have to care for more than one child, do house,utensils cleaning, and cook among other duties. It means that theservants are over-burdened.

Domestic Servants Management

Management of domestic servants in Canada is via government laws andpersonal employers. The Canadian administration comprises of twolegislative pieces, which exposes domestic servants to mistreatment.One of the pieces is the law that employees ought to live with thebosses all through the period they will be working. The minimumnumber of years for domestic work is two years. This has been thecase since the 1940s. Since most servants are immigrants they havenowhere else to live, as the only alternative is living with theemployers. The outcome of such a law is that the servants work forlonger hours. Although some employers might pay for overtime, most donot. Working overtime means the servants complete duties that werenot part of the agreement with employers (Grandea &amp Kerr, 1998).The live-in conditions for domestic servants are substandard wherethey are susceptible to physical, verbal or even sexual harassment.Domestic workers, since 1940s, progress to be exploited regardingworking hours. This arises from the difficulty of differentiatinghours when the worker should be working and when they should not.

Bearing in mind the employer and employee live together it is hardfor servants to avoid duties even at night. The servant feels it istheir role to meet employers’ demands at all times. Marla explainsthat at times she has to clean the kitchen and utensils during thenight, despite it being time that she should not be working. Aftereating dinner with her employer’s family, she feels obliged toclean after. Such roles are categorized as overtime work under theEmployment Standards Act, yet Marla does not get any extrapayment (MacDowell &amp Radforth,2006). Many migrant employees have no alternative but toprogress working for their employer at any time. It is a kind ofexploitation, which is difficult to control. In most instances,domestic servants have been unable to push for fair treatment byemployers, since the employer may resort to hiring another submissiveservant.

The employer may feel that having to live with an employee isburdensome. Hence, many servants live in substandard conditions. Theemployers do not consider servants as part of their families. In the1940s, servants had quarters in the same compound with their bosseswhere they could sleep. The quarters were nothing compared to theemployer’s home, as the mere provision was a sleeping room.Currently, many servants sleep in dark rooms, basements or otherrooms, which are poorly aerated or have poor lighting. Many servantsdo not get to enjoy any form of luxury as telephones, television orradios. In cases where the luxury is provided, the employer maycharge. Marla and Carina expresses this, as Marla confesses that inall the years she has worked as a domestic servant, her employershave given her accommodation in the worst room. Carina says that ininstances when she wanted to call back home she had to ask forpermission from the employer. There is no certainty of being allowedto use the phone, and even when it happens, the employer is close bylistening to the conversation. Some employers are rude and allow theservant to use the phone if they are able to pay.

Living with employers implies that domestic servants have not alwayshad any form of privacy. Employers own the rooms given to domesticemployees, which gives them the right to enter at will. Because mostof the rooms are not comfortable, they may not have locks making itpossible for anyone to enter the rooms and search servants’property (Grandea &amp Kerr, 1998). The rooms also serve manypurposes and could be a place for storing other items. The higherauthority that employers have makes it easier for them to decide onliving conditions and privacy to offer their servants. This isfurther expressed in the employee-employer relationship. Domesticservants regard employers as miss or mister. Contrary, employers usethe servant’s first name. Marla says that employers feel morerespected when referred to as miss or mister. Carina, who says thather employer calls her by her name, supports the same argument. Mostdomestic servants have faced power imbalances from 1940s, due to thelow status linked with the jobs. In addition, the servants come fromlower status than employers come and are non-civilians (Aronson &ampNeysmith, 1998).

The fact that domestic servants are not Canadian citizens is asecond piece of Canadian law that exposes them to mistreatment. Thelaw allows for immediate deportation of servants once the workingagreement expires, or is ended by servants or bosses. Theapprehension of immediate deportation in case the employer decided tomakes most servants submissive, even when they are sentient that theyare being exploited. Marla and Carina have in most instances feltmistreated by the employer and opted to remain silent. For instance,the employer’s relatives may also compel the servant to completetasks, yet they are not the employer. There is a high probabilitythat failing to obey such relatives may be considered as disrespect,which could result in firing. Disobeying any individual related toemployers and most importantly the bosses is very risky for servants.

Domestic servants have learnt over the years how to endureexploitation because they do not enjoy the similar rights as othermigrant employees. Most current domestic personnel come fromnon-industrialized nations like Caribbean. This means that they donot have landed immigrant permission like white Europeans. From1981-1992, migrant domestic servants were allowed temporal worksanctions with the capability of applying for permanent landedimmigrant following a period of two years minimum working in Canadaunder the previous Federal Domestic Movement (MacDowell&amp Radforth, 2006). Currently, servants work under theLive-in Caregiver Program. There are no positive alterationsthough the latter program includes more prerequisites for servants toget landed immigrant status. No changes are apparent in the manner ofgetting the status. Carina says that alterations made toprerequisites for getting status have made it more difficult since1992 (Parreñas,2001). For instance, she says that she has been asked todemonstrate instances she has done voluntary work, yet she has notime for volunteering. The fact that the servants start work earlyand are still working late in the evening, means no time to spare.Another prerequisite is determining ones saving. For an individuallike Carina who sends all her savings back home, saving isimpossible. She says that such prerequisites by the Canadianadministration only make it easier for employers to continue withtheir exploitation of domestic servants.


The aspirations of domestic workers have become more achievable. Inthe 40s it was not possible for servants to move into Canada withtheir families or children. Following the implementation of theForeign Domestic Movement Program in 1981, permitting migrantdomestic employees from non-preferred countries get permanentCanadian residence, immigrant females endured the exploitativesituations with the hope of moving their relatives to Canada and livebetter lives (MacDowell &ampRadforth, 2006). However, with more laws favoring domesticworkers, some have been able to relocate their families to thecountry. The disadvantage is that it is almost impossible to get thestatus of a Canadian resident for immigrants. This compels mostservants to work in their positions for longer. In addition, thealterations to Canada’s immigration guidelines from 1992 mandatingservants to demonstrate self-sufficiency have reduced theiraspirations of gaining citizenship. The establishment of unions hasbeen of specific importance in ensuring the workers achieve theiraspirations. When Marla started working, she had to leave heryoungest child who was only two years as it was impossible to traveland work with him. However, for Carina, she joined a trade unionprior to commencing work as a domestic servant in Canada. Through theunion, she was able to get the rights to move her sister and son tothe country. Then, her son was young and she wanted to have himclose, though the sister and son have moved back to their homecountry.


Many domestic servants are compelled to leave their relatives andmove to industrialized countries seeking work. The immigrants aretransnational breadwinners that still have to fulfill theirtraditional roles of providing for their families back home(Chia-Lan, 2003). To provide, they are compelled to leave theirchildren and spouses in the home nations. This implies that thefemales ought to organize for how their homes will be taken care ofby sisters, since their husbands cannot fulfill the traditionalfemale duties. Those servants unable to get a relative to leave incharge of their homes also result to employing their own domesticemployees (Parrenas, 2000). For instance, Marla manages to workoverseas because she has an aunt that takes care of her family athome. She is rather lucky that the husband understands the nature ofher work and assists in taking care of the children. Carina’sfamily lives close to her relatives, which means that her childrenand husband have people to look after her. The compulsory two-yearworking status implies that domestic servants have to live for allthat period without seeing their relations. This makes it apparentthat domestic servants are incapable of becoming a part of managingtheir family affairs as most of the times they are away from home.


In the 40s to 80s, domestic servants’ resemblance to slaves meantthey had no leisure time because of the many responsibilities theyhad to complete. Exploitation from employers made it difficult tospare time for engaging in fun activities. It was not possible todifferentiate amid working and leisure hours for the domesticservants as the workers were compelled to live in their employers’homes all through (Arat-Koc, 1999). However, there have been changesin the view of domestic workers and work agreements that make itpossible to spare time to meet friends or visit places. Marla notesthat when she moved to Canada, in her first job she did not have timefor leisure and was mostly working. When she moved to her second andthird job, the agreement with the employer was better and includedgiving her a day off. Carina says that her employers have alwaysgiven her off, once a week although, both Marla and Carina arereluctant on enjoying leisure activities and prefer to meet friendswhen possible.

The lack of money is another reason that stops domestic servantsfrom having leisure time. Most of the servants’ salary is theprovincial minimum income and hence have no money to spare foractivities like seeing a movie (Chia-Lan, 2003). In addition, almostall their earnings are sent back to the home countries. Marla notesthat going out is impossible for her as the little money she gets shesends home and tries to save. During free hours, she prefers readinga book. She also says that she does not know places where she can goto have fun. At times, the domestic servants may get lucky if thefamily that has hired them agrees to go with them to beaches andother public places. It is possible to conclude that domesticservants in history did not have any leisure time. In current years,employees have off days but have no money to have fun.

Domestic Servants Rights

There have been slight improvements to the rights of domesticservants from 1940s. The Employment Standards Act determinesthe rights of domestic servants in Canada. The act mandates thatemployers pay for overtime, work protection hours and holidays.Contrary, employers seem to have minimal regard for the rights, whichmakes it impossible for the servants to enjoy their rights. As aresult, domestic servants are less probable to sue their employersdue to violations of such rights. The apprehension of deportationmakes it even impossible that servants would think of pushing fortheir rights from employers. Other reasons, which make it difficultfor domestic servants to fight to their rights as stipulated by theact, involve poor communication skills, as they do not have therequired language prowess and financial constraints (Stasiulis &ampBakan, 1997). Domestic servants that desire to file claims againstemployers ought to pay a fee and wait for their hearing. Asking theservants to pay is exploitative, since the amount is high theservants earn minimal salaries, and have no money to save (Hodge,2006). It is as well relevant to remember that due to the live-inprerequisite for servants, they ought to progress living withemployers even when filing claims. Supposing the employer decides toterminate the services of a servant that has filed a claim, it meansthe servant is sent back home with no justice. The fact that domesticwork is largely private, proving any form of injustice towards theservants is almost improbable. Despite the Act available to safeguardand avoid domestic servants’ exploitation in Canada, it isimpossible to address violations.


It has been largely impossible for domestic servants to resistexploitation from employers all through the past half century todate. For instance, domestic servants working in Ontario do not havethe freedom of organizing or representation within a labor union asstipulated in the Ontario Labor Relations Act (Arat-Koc,1999). The absence of union representation might become a centralcause to the excessive exploitation of some domestic servants thathave to do more work than agreed. In addition, the servants have beenincapable of resisting exploitation because of the main reason oflacking accommodation. The live-in law mandating servants to stay inthe similar house as employers makes it completely hard for workersto talk over domestic issues they could be experiencing and groupthemselves into a union, in the same manner that non-domesticemployees might be able to (Arat-Koc, 1999). The interviewees’confess that they would never reflect on the possibility of becomingmembers of a union. Marla says that even when she feels that she iscompletely exploited, she has never thought of reporting herexperiences to any authorities. Marla progresses to note that one hasto do what the employer demands and when it comes to fulfillingemployer’s wishes, rights do not come into play. Carina supportsMarla by also declaring that she is unaware of how she can become amember of a union. It is apparent that many domestic servants may noteven recognize the relevance of unions. Considering that they areresidents of countries where employees are rarely represented byunions, it is also unlikely that they would think of unionizationwhen in a host nation. Another reason why domestic servants haverarely resisted exploitation is due to apprehension that they willnot get immigration status in Canada. The sad thing is that as theservants put up with exploitation hoping that they will eventuallybecome Canadian residents, the possibility of getting the status isuncommon.


The Canadian administration is largely responsible for workingtowards improving the work and living situations of domesticservants. The administration needs to reevaluate their legislation onimmigration policy. The work contribution of domestic servants tomany Canadian homes from the 1940s is invaluable and continues to beto date.

Many of the domestic servants that have works in Canada since the1940s have been immigrants from non-industrialized nations. In thenon-industrialized nations, civilians are not able to secureemployment because of high joblessness. Even when individuals manageto get employment, the salary is too low. Thus, many opt to relocateto Canada and become domestic servants. It is easy to find employmentas a domestic worker in Canada due to high demand for servants. Theattempt to make more money and improve living standards has compelledmany females to seek work in Canadian homes. The salaries they getare used to support families in home nations. Canada presents thepossibility of a better lifestyle.

Domestic servants in the 1940s were highly exploited as they have hadto complete many duties as expected by their employers. This wasfacilitates by Canadian laws, like the mandatory requirement forservants to stay with employers. Government laws have not changed,and even when they have, the stipulations have mainly remained thesame. Historically, domestic servants were incapable of formingunions due to their non-civilians status in Canada. This made it easyfor employers to take advantage of their servants through failing topay overtime, not allowing holidays and forcing the servants toperform risky duties, in addition to not signing work agreements.However, the emergence of trade unions has made it possible to pushfor the fair treatment of domestic workers. The 2000s are years whenworkers sign agreements with their employers, which reduceexploitation.


Arat-Koc, S. (1999). In the Privacy of our own Home: Foreign DomesticWorkers as Solution to the Crisis in the Domestic Sphere in Canada.Studies in Political Economy 28, 33-58.

Aronson, J., &amp Sheila, M. N. (1998). You`re Not Just in There toDo the Work: Depersonalizing Policies and the Exploitation of HomeCare Workers` Labor. Gender and Society 10(1), 59-77.

Bakan, A. B., &amp Daiva, S. (1994). Foreign Domestic Worker Policyin Canada and the Social Boundaries of Modern Citizenship. Scienceand Society 58 (1), 7-33.

Chia-Lan, P. (2003). Maid or Madam? Filipina Migrant Workers and theContinuity of Domestic Labor. Gender and Society 17(2),187-208.

Fauve-Chamoux, A. (2004).&nbspDomesticservice and the formation of European identity: Understandingthe globalization of domestic work, 16th-21st centuries. Bern: PeterLang.

Grandea, M., &amp Joanna, K. (1998). Frustrated and Displaced:Filipina Domestic Workers in Canada. Gender and Development6(1), 7-12.

Hodge, J. (2006). Unskilled Labour: Canada`s Live-in CaregiverProgram. Undercurrent 3(2): 60-66.

MacDowell, L. S., &amp Radforth,I. W. (2006).&nbspCanadianworking-class history: Selected readings. Toronto:Canadian Scholars` Press.

Parrenas, R. S. (2000). Migrant Filipina Domestic Workers and theInternational Division of Reproductive Labor Migrant FilipinaDomestic Workers and the International Division of ReproductiveLabor. Gender and Society 14(4), 560-580.

Parreñas,R. S. (2001).&nbspServantsof globalization: Women, migration and domestic work. Stanford,California:Stanford UniversityPress.

Stasiulis, D., &amp Bakan, A. B. (1997). Negotiating Citizenship -The Case of Foreign Domestic Workers in Canada. Feminist Review0(57), 112-139.