Hidden Migrant Domestic Workers - what happens to them in the UK?

Around 14,000 visas are issued each year to migrant domestic workers accompanying employers to the UK. Other than the reports made by MDWs who register with Kalayaan, there is little evidence as to what happens to the majority of those who enter the UK. However all research since the 2012 visa changes correlates with Kalayaan’s findings, and warn that tying MDWs to employers facilitates their abuse. Most recently the Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill has recommended that the 2012 changes be reversed.

‘In the case of the domestic workers’ visa, policy changes have unintentionally strengthened the hand of the slave master against the victim of slavery. The moral case for revisiting this issue is urgent and overwhelming. Protecting these victims does not require primary legislation and we call on the Government to take immediate action.’

Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill.
Draft Modern Slavery Bill Report.
Session 2013-14. Page 4

Around 14,000 visas are issued each year to migrant domestic workers accompanying employers to the UK. Typically migrant domestic workers (MDWs) are women who have migrated in order to support their families. Many have come from countries in Southeast Asia and indebted themselves to an agent in order to secure a job in the Middle East. MDWs then accompany the employer to the UK.

As MDWs live in their employers’ house, depending on them for all information about the UK, as well as their immigration status and their employment they are vulnerable to abuses including forced labour and trafficking for domestic servitude.  Many workers come to Kalayaan upon escaping an employer and it is not unusual for them to have no passport nor idea of their immigration status, no money, inadequate clothes and to be very scared. Many domestic workers tell us they have not been outside the whole time they have been in the UK.

Until April 2012 MDWs entered the UK on an Overseas Domestic Worker visa which gave them some protections against abuses, and for those who were exploited anyway, allowed them to escape and go to the authorities. They were permitted on this visa to change employers, so long as they remained working as a domestic worker in one private house, and had no recourse to public funds. This ability to change employers not only gave domestic workers some bargaining power, which went some way towards preventing abuse, it also allowed them to move on and rebuild their lives upon escape, remaining visible and costing the UK nothing.

In April 2012 these protections were removed. Instead a visa was introduced which tied migrant domestic workers to their employers for a maximum of 6 months in the UK, after which they were expected to leave the UK. The effects seen two years on are alarming. There is a marked restriction in freedoms reported by the 120 domestic workers tied to their employers (who entered the UK on either the tied visa, or accompanying a diplomat) who registered with Kalayaan since April 2012, in comparison with those 282 domestic workers who registered with Kalayaan during the same time period but who entered the UK prior to the visa changes so who were not tied to their employers.

·         71% of those tied said they were not allowed out unaccompanied, compared to 43% not tied,

·         65% tied said they either shared a room with the children or slept in the lounge or kitchen, compared to 34% not tied.

·         Nearly double the workers tied to employers had no time off (79% compared to 46%)

·         More than three quarters (78%) of those on the tied or diplomatic visa had their passport kept from them versus under half (48%).

·         Internally, Kalayaan staff assessed 69% of those on the tied or diplomatic visa as trafficked compared with 26% who had permission to change employer.

 

Other than the reports made by MDWs who register with Kalayaan, there is little evidence as to what happens to the majority of those who enter the UK. However all research since the 2012 visa changes correlates with Kalayaan’s findings, and warn that tying MDWs to employers facilitates their abuse. This includes the Centre for Social Justice Report ‘It Happens Here’ and ‘Hidden Away’, a report on the tied visa by Human Rights Watch. Most recently the Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill has recommended that the 2012 changes be reversed.  This solution, requiring only a change in the immigration rules should be simple and quick, and would go a long way towards protecting migrant domestic workers and allowing them to work with the authorities to report those who criminally exploit them. We hope, in the context of their commitments to combat slavery, it is a solution which the Government with seize, and urgently. 

By Kate Roberts, Kalayaan