Domestic migrant workers suffer abuse, imprisonment and exploitation. Photo: Flickr/(vincent desjardins)
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If the UK government doesn't protect exploited domestic workers, it is complicit in slavery

Is parliament dragging its heels on modern-day slavery because women's domestic "work" is still considered part of the natural order?

She arrived in the morning at Kalayaan, a charity that supports domestic migrant workers, having escaped from her employers’ house the night before. She had been brought over by her employers to the UK from India, to accompany them on holiday. In their expensive central London holiday home, Rupa was kept a virtual prisoner. Her passport had been confiscated. She was not allowed out, except in the company of her employers. She worked without breaks all day every day, in sole charge of a baby, on whose bedroom floor she slept at night. She did all this in return for £26 a week and regular verbal abuse. 

Like many migrant workers, Rupa stayed because she was desperate — but it had finally became too much. She escaped, hoping someone could help her. Had she arrived in the UK prior to April 2012, perhaps they could have. But Rupa had been brought to the UK since the new rules on domestic worker visas had been introduced, which meant that her immigration status was tied to her employers. Her options were stark: the charity Kalayaan could refer her to the government’s identification system for victims of trafficking, which would almost certainly result in her being deported, or she could go back to her employers.

She did not have the right to search for alternative employment — indeed, since her immigration status was tied to her employer, by escaping from their abuse, she was in effect breaking the law. With a family to support and a husband too ill to work, Rupa made the only choice available to her. She returned to her prison. We don’t know what has happened to her since.

This week, the Modern Slavery Bill is passing through parliament again. The Lords have tabled an amendment to the Domestic Workers’ Visa that would reverse the April 2012 changes, giving workers the right to change their employer, although not their sector. They have also recommended that those workers who have been victims of modern slavery should be granted a temporary three month visa enabling them to seek alternative employment. Declaring her support for the amendment, Baroness Hamwee said, “I do not say this lightly, but if I were not to support this amendment, I would feel complicit in slavery and servitude.”

The evidence suggests that she would be right to feel complicit. Kalayaan found that of those on visas tied to their employers, 71 per cent were never allowed to leave the house unsupervised; 60 per cent were paid less than £50 per week (well below the national minimum wage); and 69 per cent were assessed to be victims of trafficking. These figures compare with 43 per cent, 36 per cent and 26 per cent respectively, for those on the pre-2012 visas.

Kalayaan has also found that those on tied visas report twice the amount of physical abuse than those on the original visas. And yet, despite this overwhelming evidence, the government is still dragging its heels. Kate Roberts, a community advocate for Kalayaan, tells me that the government, “turned down this amendment all through the Commons”. She hopes that now that it has been voted in by the Lords, the government “will finally see the light and keep in these really basic provisions” that allow workers to lawfully escape abuse.

The statement I received from the Home Office on Friday does not offer much in the way of hope for Roberts and the vulnerable workers she represents: “[W]e are disappointed with the outcome of the House of Lords vote”, they told me, adding that their priority in responding to the vote would be to “ensure that the Modern Slavery Bill is as effective as possible in protecting victims and targeting those who commit these abhorrent crimes”. To this end, they have “commissioned an independent review of the visa route, which will include looking at the impact of the restriction on changing employer”.

But the evidence is already there. It has already been documented by Kalayaan and Human Rights Watch among others. Both the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill have condemned the tied visa and called for the changes to be reversed. So why is the government stalling? As Hamwee asked, “How much more evidence do we need?”

Roberts has her suspicions. “We have been working with domestic workers since the Eighties”, she tells me, “and we have given [the government] repeated evidence that when domestic workers have rights in law this goes some way towards preventing their abuse in the first place, because it sends a clear message to them and their employers that they can leave and get help . . . We had a visa system that was recognised to be a system of good practice, which was in place until 2012. They removed it. We warned them what would happen”.

She doesn’t think it’s a matter of evidence. “Prior to 2012, if a domestic worker entered the UK with her employer [Kalayaan’s statistics for 2013-2014 show that 87 per cent of the workers who registered with them were female], worked full-time for five years and passed the ESOL [English for Speakers or Other Languages] requirements, she could then apply for indefinite leave to remain”. The government was concerned that this enabled “low-skilled migrants” to eventually get a route to settlement.

There is more than a whiff of sexism to the designation of care work as “low-skilled”. Women still do the vast majority of care-work, and the contribution of this (mostly unpaid) work to the economy is substantial. Unpaid household work has been estimated to contribute an additional 45 per cent to Canada’s GDP. In the UK, unpaid childcare has been valued at £343bn, which is three times the contribution of the financial services industry. But no one is calling bankers low-skilled. 

Perhaps it is because female servitude, rather than work, is still considered to be part of the natural order of things that the government is in no hurry to grant these vulnerable workers the rights they deserve. Roberts certainly believes that there is “a complete lack of value of [what is seen as] women’s work. It’s just seen as what women do”. That this is the case is further borne out by the way in which employers have been routinely able to exploit the “family worker exemption”.

This exemption from the need to pay the national minimum wage was originally introduced with au pairs in mind. The idea was that they were not workers, they were treated as members of the family, given time off, and were in the country for reasons of cultural exchange, rather than to work. None of these criteria apply to domestic workers who are emphatically in the country to earn whatever pittance they can send back to their families. And yet, the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) found ample evidence that domestic workers are not being seen as real workers and therefore not being subject to workers’ rights. 

The apparent inability to see domestic work as real work is costing the government a substantial chunk of income. Andrew Boff, a Conservative member of the Greater London Assembly authored a report into human trafficking in London in which he found that the government was missing out on £37m every year due to hidden and underpaid migrants on the domestic worker visa. More crucially, by stalling on what the Joint Committee on Human Rights has called an “urgent and overwhelming” moral case, the government is failing in its obligations to ensure basic human rights for those they have, after all, allowed to legally enter the country.

When I spoke to Bella Sankey from the human rights group Liberty, she points out that if the government doesn’t want these “low-skilled” workers, they have the option of shutting down this visa route altogether. But they won’t. For “political considerations”, Sankey says. “It’s not going to be the kind of policy change that lots of wealthy and influential people that have domestic workers are going to endorse”. As a result, the government has gone for what Bamber calls “a messy compromise” that ultimately creates a situation where workers are “so dependent and vulnerable to their employer that they are putting up with the sort of behaviour that is absolutely contrary to everything [the Modern Slavery Bill] is meant to be dealing with”.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has described the government’s policy on domestic worker visas as having “strengthened the hand of the slave master against the victim of slavery”. We must hope that parliament votes to end their facilitation of domestic servitude.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.