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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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