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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear