Thousands of foreign domestic workers in the UK are open to abuse. Photo: Getty
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The government overlooks foreign domestic workers being treated as slaves

Despite Theresa May's rhetoric, the Conservatives torpedoed an amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill which would protect foreign domestic workers from economic, physical and sexual abuse.

Rita lives in London and works seven days per week. She rises at dawn and often doesn't get to bed until the small hours. Each day, she washes and cooks for three children, then cleans the house of her employer from top to bottom. Rita is fed on scraps of food, and sleeps in what is best described as a glorified cupboard, with a thin mattress on the floor. The mother of the household frequently verbally and even physically abuses her. The father, a wealthy businessman, has made occasional sexual advances. When Rita arrived in the United Kingdom from Indonesia, her employer also confiscated her passport. And she is still waiting for her first paycheck.

By most definitions, Rita's experience should count as modern day slavery. But thousands of foreign domestic workers are in the United Kingdom right now, open to abuse because the present government has introduced a tied visa system, in which foreign domestic workers' immigration status is entirely dependent on their employer. If their employer happens to be abusive – economically, physically, sexually or verbally – the domestic worker cannot move to a new household. She (foreign domestic workers are mainly women) is trapped. This is the much disdained kafala system of the Gulf, alive and well here in the UK. This is modern day slavery.

Yet Theresa May and the Home Office think otherwise. Her government has continually blocked moves to repeal these immigration laws, introduced from April 2012 – even as human rights groups, domestic worker support groups and the domestic workers themselves warn they are having devastating effects. An amendment to May's own Modern Slavery Bill, asking for the tied visa system to be repealed, was recently rejected after the Tories rallied to vote against it.

According to Kalayaan, a charity that works to protect abused domestic workers in the UK, 16% of those who arrived after the tied visa system was implemented report physical abuse, compared to 8% prior to its introduction. 65% on the tied visa don't have their own bedrooms, often sleeping in the kitchen or lounge – compared to 34% previously. Four fifths of tied workers have had their passports confiscated. There are reports of sexual abuse within foreign embassies, of billionaires from the Gulf or south Asia, living in west London mansions, who do not pay their domestic workers and beat them if they “misbehave.” One employer threatened to throw a domestic worker of the top of a sixth storey building.

Leaving these abusive employers puts the domestic workers in an impossible situation. They are then unable to work legally – putting them at even more risk. One woman, unable to find work, was forced to live in a central London park, where she was raped. Although the government claimed, in rejecting the amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill, that laws already exist to protect these abused workers - in reality, when workers have reported themselves to police stations, they are quickly deported. Back home, they often have large families to support, or ill family members – and their salary in the UK is their only chance of feeding them.

Foreign domestic workers, on the whole, are well treated. But there are too many cases of terrible abuse. The Modern Slavery Bill is a great opportunity to repeal the barbarism of the tied visa system. Theresa May and her Tory government should recognise that. She wants to look tough on immigration but the suffering of thousands of women is too terrible a price to pay. As the Bill moves forward into the Lords, it is imperative these laws are repealed.

Alastair Sloan, unequalmeasures.com

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.