Domestic migrant workers suffer abuse, imprisonment and exploitation. Photo: Flickr/(vincent desjardins)
Show Hide image

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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

0800 7318496