November 1, 2012 11:55 am
Updated: March 13, 2013 3:32 pm

Two embassies temporarily banned from bringing servants to Canada

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OTTAWA – The Department of Foreign Affairs recently banned two countries from bringing domestic servants to Canada to work in diplomatic households due to workplace abuses and labour violations.

The temporary bans came this spring after the department’s Office of Protocol found evidence that private servants working in the homes of some diplomatic staff “have been the targets of workplace abuses and extensive labour rights violations.”

A quarterly report from the office dated from March to June 2012 and obtained by Global News outlines the abuses, including unpaid wages, unilateral changes to contracts, excessive working hours and possible debt bondage.

‘We expect that foreign diplomats posted to Canada abide by our laws and policies. When foreign representatives are found to not be playing by the rules, we take action,” said the department in a statement to Global News.

Foreign Affairs urged the two countries, which remained unnamed to protect diplomatic relationships, to educate staff about Canadian labour laws and to monitor employment practices. The report does not mention when the bans would be lifted.

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“Where there has been a demonstration that the foreign mission is unable or unwilling to recognize the rights of workers, then I think this is a very appropriate step to take,” Christina Harrison-Baird of PACT Ottawa, an organization that advocates against human trafficking, said of the ban. “Canada has a responsibility to act in cases where there has been a pattern of abuses of workers’ rights.”

Foreign missions are allowed to accredit private servants as part of their diplomatic staff, but are asked to follow minimum provincial labour laws.

But working behind the closed doors of a diplomat’s home can add to the risk of exploitation.

“The vulnerability really stems from the fact that they are isolated. They are working in a milieu that is protected. The diplomatic mission itself is inviolable under international law and Canadian law,” Baird-Harrison said.

Lucia Spencer, who heads up Immigrant Women’s Services Ottawa, said private servants can have lower standards than those set out in Canadian labour laws.

“Each country has its own way of doing business, so if they are accustomed to private servants working ten hours a week maybe that’s normal in their country, but here in Canada we have to comply with the labour laws of the country,” she said.

Three servants from diplomatic residences have knocked on Spencer’s door looking for help in the last year. Their complaints ranged from verbal to physical abuse, but most of the time abuse is emotional or psychological.

“Sometimes they are at their wits end. They have tolerated it for a little while or maybe for years and suddenly they realize there is help out there for them,” Spencer said.

Spencer said a few years ago her organization, Foreign Affairs, the RCMP, Ottawa Police Service and other groups created a brochure and website highlighting support services after women from embassies started coming forward with stories of abuse.

Out of the 8,000 people in the diplomatic community, there are 129 private servants working for diplomats from 51 countries in Canada, according to a report obtained by Global News and prepared by the Office of Protocol for the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Canada has banned five different countries, at least partially, from accrediting private servants due to a “discernable pattern of abuse” over the past five years, the presentation shows.

Significant sources of private servants listed in the document include the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Kenya, Nigeria and the USA. Those are not necessarily the countries that were banned.

Harrison-Baird said while the problem is not likely widespread, private servants from some countries may be more vulnerable to labour exploitation than others.

“The likelihood that someone might be exploited is probably stronger in cases where there are systems in place in the home country that are inherently abusive,” she said.

The OSCE report suggests Foreign Affairs may tighten rules to protect private servants including forced disclosure of payroll statements and tighter limits on who is allowed to employ private servants.

Currently, Foreign Affairs tries to combat labour abuses in diplomatic households by reviewing employment contracts, interviewing prospective private servants, requesting payroll statements and banning the accreditation of private servants for countries that break the rules.

Earlier quarterly reports show private servants have complained about labour abuses in the past. Nine individuals lodged grievances with Foreign Affairs or police forces according to reports dating back to 2006.

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