Portuguese Immigrant Women Who Work as Cleaning Ladies, or Domestic Workers, in Canada: Working Relationships Beyond Boundaries

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dos Santos, Márcia
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Mount Saint Vincent University
This thesis seeks to expand understanding of why Portuguese women enter domestic work (DW) instead of other types of jobs; how DW advantages and or disadvantages them; what are the key characteristics of the relationships they form as a result of DW; and what kinds of formal and informal learning occur in the context of DW. Besides having typically entered Canada outside of any statutory DW immigration program, the Portuguese immigrant women who are engaged in DW often differ from other domestic workers in terms of their education levels, fluency in English and cultural attitudes. The research for this study focused on five Portuguese-Canadian women from three cities in Canada, who had been engaged in DW for at least 2 years within a household setting, and whose jobs were neither brokered by a formal employment agency nor covered by an employment contract. The women participated in a qualitative, semi-structured interview process, in which they discussed the advantages and disadvantages of employment in DW; the relationships they formed during their DW experience; and the formal and informal skills they acquired as a result of DW. The framework for this study is Marxist Feminism theory, which is utilized to attempt to explain the condition of this identifiable class of female workers. The findings show that on the one hand, various positive factors contribute to the choice of Portuguese-Canadian immigrant women to stay in the DW profession. These include personal fulfillment, recognition for work done, the feeling of being one’s own boss, flexible working hours, a relatively decent salary and the avoidance of income tax, and the formation of positive relationships with employers and their families. On the other hand, these women recognize certain disadvantages of DW, such as the lack of a guaranteed income, job security, retirement provision, union representation and legally enforceable labour rights. These negative factors contribute to a situation of relative vulnerability for Portuguese-Canadian immigrant women. They rely on a variety of means to protect their interests, for example by organizing their schedules in such a way as to maximize their earning potential; contesting their assignment of tasks within the household; leaving exploitative employers; and finding new employment opportunities through social networks within the Portuguese-Canadian community. This thesis concludes that Marxist Femism theory does not recognize the full complexity of the social condition of this class of working women, for whom issues such as racial and cultural stereotyping, and outright racism, are significant considerations. My conclusion brings to light the need for the Canadian government to formulate policies designed to protect this “invisible” group of women working in the margins of Canadian society.
Portuguese women, domestic work, immigrant women