Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
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The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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