Beware those Black Swans

The bestselling economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that we can’t make the world financial system

After completing my book The Black Swan, I spent some time meditating on the fragility of systems with the illusion of stability. This convinced me that the banking system was the mother of all accidents waiting to happen. I explained in the book that the best teachers of wisdom are the eldest, because they may have picked up invisible tricks that are absent from our epistemic routines and which help them survive in a world more complex than the one we think we understand. So being old implies a higher degree of resistance to "Black Swans" (events with the following three attributes: they lie outside the realm of regular expectations; they carry an extreme impact; and human nature makes us concoct explanations for their occurrence after the fact).

Take Mother Nature, which is clearly a complex system, with webs of interdependence, non-linearities and a robust ecology (otherwise it would have blown up a long time ago). It is a very old person with an impeccable memory. Mother Nature does not develop Alz­heimer's - and there is evidence that even humans would not easily lose brain functions with age if they took long walks, avoided sugar, bread, white rice and stock-market investments, and refrained from taking economics classes or reading the New York Times.

Let me summarise my ideas of how Mother Nature deals with the Black Swan. First, she likes redundancies. Look at the human body. We have two eyes, two lungs, two kidneys, even two brains (with the possible exception of company executives) - and each has more capacity than is needed ordinarily. So redundan­cy equals insurance, and the apparent inefficiencies are associated with the costs of maintain­ing these spare parts and the energy needed to keep them around in spite of their idleness.

The exact opposite of redundancy is naive optimisation. The reason I tell people to avoid attending an (orthodox) economics class and argue that economics will fail us is the following: economics is largely based on notions of naive optimisation, mathematised (poorly) by Paul Samuelson - and these mathematics have contributed massively to the construction of an error-prone society. An economist would find it inefficient to carry two lungs and two kidneys - consider the costs involved in transporting these heavy items across the savannah. Such optimisation would, eventually, kill you, after the first accident, the first "outlier". Also, consider that if we gave Mother Nature to economists, it would dispense with individual kidneys - since we do not need them all the time, it would be more "efficient" if we sold ours and used a central kidney on a time-share basis. You could also lend your eyes at night, since you do not need them to dream.

Almost every major idea in conventional economics fails under the modification of some assumption, or what is called "perturbation", where you change one parameter or take a parameter henceforth assumed to be fixed and stable by the theory, and make it random. Take the notion of comparative advantage, supposedly discovered by David Ricardo, and which has oiled the wheels of globalisation. The idea is that countries should focus on "what they do best". So one country should specialise in wine, another in clothes, even though one of them might be better at both. But consider what would happen to the country if the price of wine fluctuated. A simple perturbation around this assumption leads one to reach the opposite conclusion to Ricardo. Mother Nature does not like overspecialisation, as it limits evolution and weakens the animals.

This explains why I found the current ideas on globalisation (such as those promoted by the journalist Thomas Friedman) too naive, and too dangerous for society - unless one takes into account the side effects. Globalisation might give the appearance of efficiency, but the operating leverage and the degrees of interaction between parts will cause small cracks in one spot to percolate through the entire system.

The debt taboo

The same idea applies to debt: it makes you very fragile under perturbations. We currently learn in business schools to engage in borrowing, against all historical traditions (all Mediterranean cultures developed over time a dogma against debt). "Felix qui nihil debet", goes the Roman proverb: "Happy is he who owes nothing." Grandmothers who survived the Great Depression would have advised doing the exact opposite of getting into debt: have several years of income in cash before any personal risk-taking. Had the banks done the same, and kept high cash reserves while taking more aggressive risks with a smaller portion of their port­folios, there would have been no crisis.

Documents dating back to the Babylonians show the ills of debt, and Near Eastern religions banned it. This tells me that one of the purposes of religious traditions has been to enforce prohibitions to protect people against their own epistemic arrogance. Why? Debt implies a strong statement about the future, and a high degree of reliance on forecasts. If you borrow $100 and invest in a project, you still owe $100 even if you fail in the project (but you do a lot better in case you succeed). So debt is dangerous if you are overconfident about the future and are Black Swan-blind - which we all tend to be. And forecasting is harmful since people (especially governments) borrow in response to a forecast (or use the forecast as a cognitive excuse to borrow). My "Scandal of Prediction" (bogus predictions that seem to be there to satisfy psychological needs) is compounded by the "Scandal of Debt": borrowing makes you more vulnerable to forecast error.

Just as Mother Nature likes redundancies, so she abhors anything that is too big. The largest land animal is the elephant, and there is a reason for that. If I went on a rampage and shot an elephant, I might be put in jail and get yelled at by my mother, but I would hardly disturb the ecology of Mother Nature. On the other hand, my point about banks in my book - that if you shot a large bank, I would "shiver at the consequences" and that "if one falls, they all fall" - was subsequently illustrated by events: one bank failure, Lehman Brothers, in September 2008, brought down the entire edifice.

The crisis of 2008 provides an illustration of the need for robustness. Over the past 2,500 years of recorded ideas, only fools and Platonists have believed in engineered utopias. We shouldn't think that we can correct mistakes and eliminate randomness from social and economic life. The challenge, rather, is to ensure that human mistakes and miscalculations remain confined, and to avoid them spreading through the system - just the way Mother Nature does it. Reducing randomness increases exposure to Black Swans.

My dream is to have a true "epistemocracy"; that is, a society robust against expert errors, forecasting errors and hubris, one that can be resistant to the incompetence of politicians, regulators, economists, central bankers, bank­ers, policy wonks and epidemiologists.Here are ten principles for a Black Swan-robust society.

What is fragile should break early while it's still small: Nothing should ever become too big to fail. Evolution in economic life helps those with the maximum amount of hidden risks become the biggest.

No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains: Whatever may need to be bailed out should be nationalised; whatever does not need a bailout should be free, small and risk-bearing. We got ourselves into the worst of capitalism and socialism. In France, in the 1980s, the Socialists took over the banks. In the US in the 2000s, the banks took over the government. This is surreal.

People who drove a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus: The economics establishment lost its legitimacy with the failure of the system in 2008. Find the smart people whose hands are clean to get us out of this mess.

Don't let someone making an "incentive" bonus manage a nuclear plant - or your financial risks: Odds are he would cut every corner on safety to show "profits" from these savings while claiming to be "conservative". Bonuses don't accommodate the hidden risks of blow-ups. It is the asymmetry of the bonus system that got us here. No incentives without disincentives.

Time to definancialise

Compensate complexity with simplicity: Complexity from globalisation and highly networked economic life needs to be countered by simplicity in financial products. Complex systems survive thanks to slack and redundancy, not debt and optimisation.

Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning label: Complex financial products need to be banned because nobody understands them, and few are rational enough to know it. We need to protect citizens from themselves, from bankers selling them "hedging" products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.

Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence: Governments should never need to "restore confidence". Cascading rumours are a product of complex systems. Governments cannot stop the rumours. We just need to be able to shrug off rumours, to be robust to them. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains: Using leverage to cure the problems of too much leverage is not homoeopathy, it's denial. The debt crisis is not a temporary problem, it's a structural one. We need rehab.

Citizens should not depend on financial assets as a repository of value and rely on fallible "expert" advice for their retirement: Economic life should be definancialised. We should learn not to use markets as warehouses of value.

Make an omelette with the broken eggs: The crisis of 2008 was not a problem to fix with makeshift repairs. We will have to remake the system before it does so itself. Let us move voluntarily into a robust economy by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, converting debt into equity, marginalising the economics and business school establishments, banning leveraged buyouts, putting bankers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who got us here and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties. Then we will see an economic life closer to our biological environment: smaller firms and no leverage - a world in which entrepreneurs, not bankers, take the risks, and in which companies are born and die every day without making the news.

Extracted from the postscript to "The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Penguin, £9.99)
© Nassim Nicholas Taleb 2008 penguin.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

ELENA HEATHERWICK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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The maid slaves: how wealthy visitors to Britain trap servants in their homes

Each year 17,000 domestic workers accompany wealthy families to the UK – helped by a special visa regime that campaigners call a “recipe for slavery”.

It was 6am on 15 August 2014. Amara should have escaped an hour earlier; she was running out of time. Had everything gone to plan it would have been easy to slip out of the house in the affluent Home Counties town of Ascot unnoticed, as her employers were away, but Amara had made a misjudgement. She had asked her fellow maid if she wanted to flee, too, and now her terrified colleague was threatening to call their boss, an Emirati diplomat, and inform on her.

A Facebook message popped up on her tablet: she had five minutes until her rescuer would give up and drive home, leaving her stranded. Amara would have to abandon her suitcase. She tucked her most precious possessions – a photocopy of her passport, her employment contract and her tablet – down the front of her pyjamas. Then she sneaked downstairs and out through the front door.

Her friend’s car was parked a few hundred metres down the road. Amara jumped in and they sped past the gated houses and through the tree-lined lanes of Ascot towards London, not quite 30 miles away. Amara felt a rush of elation, followed by the familiar pang of apprehension. After almost a year in captivity she was free, but she had nothing. No money, no plan, not even – and this was the small, humiliating detail she would always mention when she later told her story – a change of underwear. It was the end of ten months of “hell”, labouring under slave-like conditions as a domestic worker, and the start of a new ordeal as an undocumented migrant in the UK.

Amara is 40 years old and about 5ft tall. She used to be chubby but she never regained the weight she lost eating only her employer’s leftovers, and now her waist looks tiny in her belted trench coat. She dresses with care, her long hair set in soft 1950s waves one day and worn straight the next, with a smudge of grey eyeshadow and a slick of berry lipstick to match her handbag. Out of habit, and a residual fear of being caught and deported, she mostly speaks in a whisper. When we met in London in October, Amara asked that, for her safety, I give a false name and not reveal her nationality.

She grew up in south-east Asia, one of six siblings supported by money sent home each month by her mother, who had migrated to Macau, a wealthy special administrative region of China, to clean for rich families. After leaving school, she studied pharmacy at a prestigious private university, then transferred to a cheaper midwifery course when the fees became unaffordable. It was hard to find work as a midwife. It was often difficult to find any job, but sometimes she worked as a secretary. Her husband, a van driver, was often unemployed, too.

They had three children and lived with her in-laws to save money. Amara says they were neither rich nor poor, by which she means they could afford three meals a day but little else. When her son was about to turn 16, she realised that the only way she could afford to pay his college fees was to work abroad. (Her two daughters were 13 and six.) Amara’s mother warned her that the life of a domestic worker was brutal, but she shrugged off such concerns. “I said that, for me, if you just think of your children, everything will be easy. You can do anything for your children.” Now ­Amara concedes that she was only half right. Sometimes, thoughts of her children were the only thing that kept her going.

Things looked promising initially. She can’t remember exactly how much, but she had paid several thousand dollars to an ­employment agency for her medical clearances and to complete a training course in domestic work. She and her family were thrilled when she was offered a post at a royal palace in the United Arab Emirates, and even more so when her employers pushed back her start date by a month but paid her anyway. To celebrate her first monthly pay cheque of 1,600 dirhams (about £350), ­Amara took her children to their favourite restaurant, McDonald’s.

When she finally left her home country in September 2013, her husband and children accompanied her to the airport. The children were distracted by the promise of another McDonald’s meal on the way home, and Amara’s sadness at saying goodbye was tempered by the excitement of her first ever plane journey and the feeling that her plans were finally working out.

The flight landed in Dubai at 4am, and Amara and another maid were met by a driver. As soon as they were in the car, the driver took away their passports. Then he drove them to their temporary lodgings, where they were shown to a room with a double bed, a television and a small bathroom. There were security guards stationed at the entrance to the building who barred the two maids from going outside. Their lack of freedom seemed strange, but they were comfortable enough. Someone delivered three meals a day, and they spent their time watching television and thinking, over and over again, “We’re so lucky!”

After four days, Amara was taken to her employer’s home. It was not, as she’d been expecting from her contract, a royal household, but even so she’d never seen anywhere so grand. “It’s like a palace,” she says of her boss’s home. There were two vast rooms for entertaining, decorated with gold furnishings. Upstairs were five large bedroom suites, each with its own bathroom and reception area. A swimming pool was being dug outside. Amara thought the garden was enormous: whichever window she looked out of she could not see where the landscaped lawn ended and the rest of Dubai began. But she could not be certain – because for the ten months she lived with the family in the United Arab Emirates she was forbidden from going outside.

“Sometimes people think that if you’re living in a huge, nice house, even if you’re a household worker you’re lucky, because your employers are rich. But they don’t know what’s happening inside the house,” she told me.

Usually she worked from 6am until 1am or 2am. Even after she had gone to sleep, on the bare floor of the servants’ quarters, she would often be shouted for to fetch a glass of water or run some other errand, and so Amara started wearing her uniform through the night. Once a month, a driver was despatched to buy phone cards and the household staff were allowed to call their families to confirm that their salaries had been remitted; but otherwise she could not speak to her husband or children.

The abuse grew steadily worse, particularly after another servant was taken away by the police and sent home under mysterious circumstances. Her boss, whom Amara still calls “Madam”, started cutting down on the number of meals the remaining two maids were given, until eventually they received no food at all and had to scavenge the leftovers from the family’s dinners. Madam began cutting Amara’s salary as punishment for the smallest infractions, and after nine months she stopped paying her. When Madam’s husband was home he was a moderating influence and Madam would speak to Amara politely and without raising her voice, but he travelled often. In his absence, Madam’s moods grew increasingly volatile. She shouted at Amara, hit her and threw clothes and drinking glasses at her.

When Amara was told in the summer of 2014 that she was accompanying the ­family to the UK, she prayed that her visa would be rejected so that she would be able to stay behind and get some rest. But at the last minute her paperwork came through and Amara accompanied the family on a private jet to London.

***

In 2015, the UK granted 17,352 visas for domestic workers – cleaners, nannies, drivers, cooks, and so on – to accompany wealthy families visiting the UK. The largest number of domestic workers, more than 8,000, were originally from the Philippines, followed by Indians and Indonesians. According to the Home ­Office, roughly three-quarters of them were working for households from the Gulf, which often travel to Britain for business, shopping and medical treatment, or to escape the Middle East’s sweltering summer heat.

Until 2012, household staff were granted visa terms similar to those for other migrant workers: they were allowed to change employer, but not job sector; they could be accompanied by their partner or children; and after five years in the UK they were permitted to apply for indefinite leave to ­remain, meaning they could settle in Britain permanently.

But five years ago, the coalition government introduced new regulations for overseas domestic workers (ODWs), ostensibly to try to reduce net migration. A 2012 Home Office impact-assessment document mooted the idea of abolishing the ODW visa altogether, so that visiting families would have to recruit household staff from within the UK.

Families might want to bring their domestic staff with them for benign reasons, such as their children being attached to their nanny. But sometimes employers choose to hire servants overseas because British workers would never accept the gruelling conditions under which they work. This, at least, was the conclusion drawn by one employment tribunal in 2015, which ruled in favour of an Indian maid who took legal action against her bosses over religious discrimination, unfair dismissal and illegal working conditions. The tribunal concluded that the only reason the employers had made no effort to recruit a maid in Britain was that they “wanted a servant in the Indian style. They wanted someone who would be not merely of service but servile, who would not be aware of United Kingdom employment rights . . .”

The ODW visa was not scrapped; the Home Office document expressed concern that doing so could “deter wealthy visitors” to the UK. (The US and a number of European countries also have special visa schemes for domestic workers accompanying visiting families, but the rules vary.) Instead, under a new system introduced in April 2012, ODWs were permitted to stay in the UK for no longer than six months. They could not be accompanied by their immediate family or apply for indefinite leave to remain. And, crucially, they were prevented from changing employer.

For domestic workers employed by Gulf households the new rules were familiar: they mirrored the widely criticised kafala, or sponsorship, system, which is common among the oil-rich Arab states. Kafala, which prevents migrant workers from leaving abusive employers without losing the right to work, has contributed to the widespread abuse and exploitation of financially desperate labourers and domestic workers across the region. No migrant workers in the UK other than ODWs faced such restrictions. In October, I met Father Aodh O’Halpin, a missionary now based in London who has campaigned for domestic workers’ rights for decades. He described the UK’s ODW visa rules as “a recipe for slavery”.

The change of rules had an alarming and almost immediate effect. Research by Kalayaan, a small London-based charity that supports overseas domestic workers in the UK, suggests that rates of abuse shot up. Among workers who registered with the charity between 2012 and 2015, 81 per cent of those on the new tied visas were given no time off, against 66 per cent of those still on the old system. Two-thirds of workers on tied visas were barred from leaving the house freely (against 41 per cent with non-tied visas), more than 30 per cent were not paid for their work (against 11 per cent) and 14 per cent reported physical abuse (against 9 per cent). Kalayaan staff identified 64 per cent of the ODWs on tied visas as victims of trafficking, meaning that their employers forced or coerced them into coming to the UK with the intention of exploiting them.

Even so, those campaigning for domestic worker rights in 2015 had some cause for optimism. The new ODW visa had a negligible impact on migration numbers. This was unsurprising, as even at their peak in 2012 ODWs and their dependants accounted for just 0.7 per cent of net migration. More significantly, the Conservative government had pledged to give priority to the abolition of modern slavery and human trafficking. In March 2015 parliament passed the landmark Modern Slavery Act, and the government committed to an independent review of the ODW visa to determine if its immigration rules were compatible with efforts to tackle slavery.

The review, by James Ewins QC, was published in December 2015 and its findings were unambiguous. “The existence of a tie to a specific employer and the absence of a universal right to change employer and apply for extensions of the visa are incompatible with the reasonable protection of overseas domestic workers while in the UK,” he concluded. He recommended that household workers be allowed to change employers freely and extend their visas for up to two and a half years, a period he described as the “minimum” required. Abused domestic workers “need the freedom to change employment, which in turn requires that they stay for long enough to be able to find safe alternative employment”, Ewins wrote.

Yet the subsequent bill for the Immigration Act 2016 rejected many of Ewins’s recommendations. It granted ODWs the right to change employer, but did not allow them to extend their visa beyond six months. Campaigners argue that this concession is meaningless, because once abused workers have summoned up the courage and the means to leave their employers, most will find it impossible to find decent, short-term work before their visa expires.

I asked the Home Office to respond to these points. A spokesman said the government was introducing additional reforms to protect ODWs, including mandatory information sessions to inform workers of their rights, and pointed to special provisions and support for victims of slavery and human trafficking.

Under the new act, ODWs who are identified as having been enslaved or trafficked – a decision that follows a long and arduous process, known as the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – can be granted a visa of up to two years, provided they can prove they are able to support themselves financially in the UK. Ewins’s report and rights campaigners have argued that this does not do enough to protect domestic workers.

For a start, many forms of abuse commonly experienced by household staff fall short of legal definitions of trafficking or slavery. “Do we need to be raped, to be beaten, to be starved to death to access protection?” Marissa Begonia, an overseas domestic worker from the Philippines and a rights campaigner, asked me.

Second, many abused domestic workers are fearful of seeking referral to the NRM. They know that if their claim is rejected they will be sent home. Emily-Anna Gibbs is a solicitor and co-founder of the independent Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU), and often represents domestic workers. She told me that the NRM “provides no escape clause for the thousands of overseas domestic workers who are trafficked and are faced with the choice: do I escape and take a load of risk ­going through the NRM, which I know very little about, getting legal advice which I fear I won’t understand and risking my livelihood? Do I take that risk? Or do I sit tight, suffer this exploitation, continue to do so because I have to pay the school fees for my kids’ education next month?” As a result, she believes, many domestic workers continue to suffer in secret.

All the advocacy groups and lawyers I spoke to agreed that the best way to protect domestic workers from being enslaved or trafficked, and the only way to empower them to flee abuse, is to allow them to extend their visas and switch employers freely. “It’s about the power relations: they can negotiate, because they can ultimately withdraw their labour,” said Kate Roberts, the head of the Human Trafficking Foundation. “If they can’t do that, there’s very little they can do to challenge any mistreatment, which can worsen until it reaches the point of exploitation – including slavery.”

***

At UK immigration control, Amara saw her passport for the last time. Her boss handed it to her in the customs queue, and then confiscated it again shortly afterwards. From the airport, she travelled with the family to the house in Ascot. No one told her where she was going, so she became disorientated. Madam’s ten-year-old asked Amara where she thought she was and then laughed when Amara replied: “London.” “We’re not in London, stupid. We’re in England,” the girl said.

In Ascot, Amara shared a bedroom with the other maid. The room, which had two single beds and an en suite shower, doubled as a laundry room and extra storage space for the family. Despite the slight improvement in her sleeping arrangements, Amara’s working conditions deteriorated. The family preferred staying in a central London hotel to being at their Ascot residence, so Amara would often clean the house in the morning before being driven to the hotel to wash and iron her bosses’ clothes, returning late at night. She was not paid, and still could not contact her family.

Madam’s behaviour became more menacing. She became convinced that Amara was a witch. “She says she got ill just because I looked at her food. She said, ‘You will pay for this. You will pay for everything you’ve done to me when we get back to Dubai,’” Amara told me. Afraid that Madam might seriously hurt, or even kill, her, she began planning her escape. She had been working for the family in England for 15 days and knew she had a week until they were due to return to the UAE.

Amara was able to run away thanks to a few bits of luck. The first was that before her household colleague in Dubai was sent home, she gave Amara her tablet computer and instructed her to hide it. The second was that Amara decided to risk asking one of Madam’s daughters for the wifi password at the Ascot house, even though she was “99.9 per cent certain” the teenager would not give it to her. The gamble paid off.

When her employers were staying in London it was not hard for Amara to leave the house, but with no money, no passport and no idea of where to go next she knew she couldn’t get far on her own. Her final stroke of good fortune was that she knew one person in the UK, an old friend from her home country who was working as an undocumented domestic worker in London and whom she contacted on Facebook. As Amara was still not sure where she lived, the friend instructed her to memorise the road signs when she was driven from London to her employer’s house, which she did.

After picking her up early that summer morning in 2014, the friend let Amara stay with her for a month, lent her clothes and helped her find part-time, casual work, often covering for other people’s sick leave or holidays.

Amara’s former employers appear not to have tried to track her down. A few months after leaving, she managed to get in touch with the maid who had worked with her in Ascot. She was surprised to hear from Amara, because she had been told by Madam that she was in prison. That woman is still working for the family in Dubai.

For over two years, Amara managed to scrape a living in London. As cleaning work was poorly paid and the hours unpredictable, she taught herself cake-making and sugarcraft by watching YouTube videos and began supplementing her income by selling cakes. She showed me pictures on her phone of some of her past creations: a Thomas the Tank Engine birthday cake; a sponge expertly decorated with an icing baby for a new arrival; another cake draped in a sweet Australian flag for a leaving party. Now that she is able to, she calls her husband and children daily and although, at ten, her youngest is too old for lullabies, Amara sings to her every night before she goes to bed. In her absence, her husband and her in-laws have been raising her children. She has not seen them since they waved goodbye to her at the airport, three and a half years ago.

Amara imposed a strict budget on herself, spending no more than £10 to £20 a week on food, toiletries and clothes, which allowed her to send roughly £200 a month back home. Her family had no idea how dearly Amara paid for these monthly remittances. To avoid upsetting or worrying them, she has never told them that she was abused, that she ran away from her employer, or that she is now undocumented.

Amara might have continued living underground in London indefinitely, ­devoting herself wholly to her family and hoping that with enough hard work she could distract herself from the gnawing fear of being caught and expelled from the UK. But a few weeks before we met, a shock event toppled her precarious new equilibrium. The boarding house in which her rescuer and friend was living was raided by the UK Border Agency, and her closest confidante was deported. Heartbroken and shaken, Amara realised she needed to address her legal status before she suffered the same misfortune.

***

Abused domestic servants do not fit the popular image of slavery. They sometimes arrive in the UK in private jets, and are chauffeured to elegant townhouses in Mayfair, diplomatic residences, sprawling country piles or five-star hotels. The domestic worker and campaigner Marissa Begonia described some of her experiences to me as being “caged in paradise”.

Domestic workers are often hidden in plain sight. Many of them gather every Sunday morning at the union offices of Unite in central London for a meeting of Justice for Domestic Workers, or J4DW – a campaign group that often starts its sessions with a singing and aerobics class to shake off another exhausting week’s work.

On the morning I attended, the first arrivals pushed the chairs and tables against the walls of a conference room, muttering about the bad habits of “corporates” as they efficiently cleared the dance floor of sugar sachets and scraps of notepaper. One woman rushed to change out of her uniform, having just finished an early-morning shift, and the others began stretching to upbeat pop music. The mood lifted quickly, rising to defiance when the group practised a song that I initially mistook as a straight rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, until I caught the lyrics:

 

At first I was afraid, I was petrified

Hiding and running from it all, justice not on my side

But then I spent so many nights, thinking how they did me wrong

So I grew strong,

I learned how to move along.

Then I found you, a group of hope . . .

 

J4DW was founded in 2009 and is run by domestic workers, many of whom spend their only day off volunteering for the group. It is lobbying the government to change British visa regulations and offers its membership of more than 1,200 workers a range of support services, pointing them towards legal advice, providing courses in IT, English and employment rights, and occasionally organising rescue missions for those held captive by abusive employers.

Its weekly gatherings offer an opportunity for people living far from home, in a country whose language they might barely speak, to make friends. Even for those who are treated well by their employers, life is tough. Women spoke to me about unfaithful husbands and marriages strained by years spent apart, or their feelings of guilt and sadness at raising other people’s babies while their own children grew up without them.

Even so, the atmosphere at the meetings is warm, friendly and stubbornly optimistic. One woman cried as she shared the news of her recent cancer diagnosis, and a group closed around her to urge her to stay positive, to keep praying and to speak to another member who had proudly described herself to me earlier as a “Stage IV cancer survivor”. Amara first visited J4DW days after her friend was deported. “They gave me my confidence back,” she said.

Marissa Begonia, the 46-year-old mother-of-three who is also J4DW’s co-ordinator, seemed subdued when we first met. “I Will Survive” rehearsals could be heard ­taking place in the neighbouring room as she coached Sarah (not her real name) for a job interview. Together, they hunched over ­Begonia’s smartphone to plan the journey to the interview, then she instructed Sarah on how to negotiate reasonable working conditions by demanding holidays and days off, overtime pay, a daily rest period and a wage of at least £8 an hour.

Sarah, a Filipina, was staying temporarily with Begonia, having been rescued by a group of J4DW members from a house in Kensington, central London, a few weeks earlier. She is 36 years old but looks and sounds much younger, with a high, hesitant voice and a permanent uncertain smile. At a playground in Hyde Park she had met and befriended a J4DW member, who put her in touch with the group on Facebook after Sarah confided that she was earning just $400 (about £320) a month and working around the clock, with no days off. She had no winter clothes and because her employers rarely provided her with food, she subsisted mainly on coffee and the occasional biscuit. She described her travel to the UK from Dubai as a “suicide run”: her salary was too low to support her family, but what else could she do?

Despite her ordeal, Sarah believed that she was unlikely to be recognised as a victim of trafficking and did not want to be referred to the NRM in case her claim was rejected and she was deported. Her six-month visa would expire in two months, but she did not feel she could go back to the Philippines yet. She still needed to save enough capital for her siblings to start their own small business and for their children to go to college. As she saw it, her only option was to work in the UK illegally.

After Sarah left for her interview, Begonia sighed and told me that she was unlikely to heed her advice. She thought that Sarah, like many other ODWs, would be desperate to accept any work offered, and employers often realise that undocumented workers are unlikely to complain if they are exploited. Begonia was right. In the end, Sarah was offered £350 a week to work 15-hour days cooking, cleaning and looking after two children. She would have Sundays off, but would not receive holiday pay. Even if the employers, a Pakistani family living in London, stuck to the agreement and did not extend her working hours, she would in effect be paid £3.88 an hour (the minimum wage is £7.20). “I hope they don’t treat me like a robot,” Sarah said to me, when we met again a few hours after her interview.

J4DW’s members are almost all women, but they follow many different religions and are ethnically diverse. A large number are from the Philippines, but some are from other countries in south-east Asia, or sub-Saharan Africa. Some have been in the UK for years and now have British citizenship; others are working illegally. Many have harrowing stories to tell of abuse and ill-treatment, and although the details vary they are linked by a common thread: every woman had torn herself away from her loved ones in the hope of giving them a better life, and no amount of hardship had persuaded them to abandon that goal.

Begonia was no exception. She was exhausted. Sundays were her only full day off, and because her employers had a new baby she had started working 12-hour days. She would normally have contested this change, but her father had heart problems and while she had to worry about his medical bills she could not afford to risk her job.

She was used to having to pick her battles, even if that wasn’t something that came easily to her. She described herself as a “natural fighter”. She told me the story of how an employer in Hong Kong had attempted to sexually assault her. Begonia managed to escape to her room and barricaded herself in while she packed her belongings and wrote her resignation letter. Then she crept outside to hide all the kitchen knives bar one. “He’s big, and I’m so tiny. I give the resignation letter and my knife is like this,” she said, holding up an imaginary weapon. “I said, ‘Sir, I’m resigning with effect today because you’re a sex maniac.’”

Begonia first arrived in the UK in 2004, and five years later, having escaped from an abusive employer, she helped found J4DW. Her children now live with her in the UK and she has acquired British citizenship. She has been the group’s co-ordinator since 2012, and some of its members call her “auntie” as a mark of respect. She spends much of her time offering practical help for other workers, arranging donations of clothes for women in need, liaising with the police and angry ex-employers and, sometimes, hammering on strangers’ doors to extract servants trapped inside. She has also represented the group in parliament and at party conferences, and often speaks at forums for international workers. Begonia wants domestic workers to appreciate the bigger picture and to join her in seeking greater social and political recognition for those who are in their situation.

“We look after families, the building blocks of society,” she said, but people “don’t value domestic work as work and they don’t really respect domestic workers as workers”. She urges J4DW members to view their struggle as part of a broader fight against low pay and poverty in the UK. At one meeting she encouraged the women to see the recent Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake to help them understand the problems faced by “vulnerable British workers”. “We are affected if British workers are affected,” she told the group.

As Begonia described her mission to me she grew more animated, her tiredness ­temporarily displaced by anger and frustration. Abused domestic workers have so few avenues for legal redress that J4DW can rarely offer much more than emergency ­assistance, moral support and help with finding new work.

She wants to give members of J4DW the confidence to join demonstrations and speak out in public, and many of them do – if they can. Yet domestic workers who have overstayed their visa, or who are stuck in exploitative jobs, cannot campaign for their own rights.

Begonia says that when she speaks in public she often reminds her audience of this, telling them: “I am a perfect example of how slavery could end. It has to end; it will end. But domestic workers need these rights. That’s what I had.”

***

The day after her friend’s boarding house was raided and she was deported, Amara visited Kalayaan. The charity determined that her trafficking case was sufficiently strong to refer her to the National Referral Mechanism. She is now waiting for a “conclusive grounds decision”, which would determine whether she can be formally recognised as a victim of trafficking and might thereby be eligible for a two-year visa. If her trafficking claim is rejected, she will have to leave the UK.

Amara does not know how long she will have to wait: according to Kate Roberts of the Human Trafficking Foundation, those referred to the NRM can be left waiting for anything between 45 days and several years for a decision. Nor does Amara know how good her chance of success is. The government does not publish data on the number of overseas domestic workers who are referred to the NRM and are formally recognised as victims of trafficking.

Amara has little grounds for hope that her former employers will ever be brought to justice. As diplomats, they are immune from criminal jurisdiction. In February 2015 a Filipina national identified in court documents as Ms C Reyes, who had been trafficked to the UK by Saudi diplomats, took her former employers to a tribunal, claiming racial discrimination, harassment and payment of less than the minimum wage. She lost the case. The Court of Appeal judgment acknowledged that “this may seem unfair to Ms Reyes”, but, it argued, “sometimes the apparent unfairness to an individual is outweighed by the harm that would be caused by a failure to give effect to diplomatic immunity in circumstances such as those that have arisen in this case”. (The case is under appeal at the Supreme Court, and will be heard in May.)

While she is under the NRM, Amara cannot be deported, which she considers a small relief. To distract herself from the agonising wait, she is spending as much time as possible at J4DW. She often participates in the singing and dancing sessions, and takes English and IT classes – anything to keep busy. When she speaks to her family on FaceTime every evening, her ten-year-old daughter becomes tearful and asks when she is going to come home. Amara warns her that it could be a little while yet.

“I’m praying the Home Office will give a positive conclusion so I can apply for a two-year visa,” she said. “I don’t want to stay here for ten years. What I want is to be here for two years, just so I can save. So at least I can have something when I get back to my house.”

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine