This month’s issue of the Socialist Standard carries an article on the plight of domestic servants around the world. Despite the supposed sympathy of the British government, the article highlights that existing laws in the UK “facilitates and institutionalises the domestic servitude of workers.” Since being printed more evidence for this claim has appeared, according to the Guardian.
Tied visas that restrict domestic workers to one employer and limit their stay in the UK leave women vulnerable to slavery and abuse. Domestic workers transported to the UK are legally tied to their employer and are unable to change jobs while in the country. This visa rule exposes thousands of women brought to the UK by wealthy Gulf families to conditions of slavery, trafficking and abuse.
An independent review of the visa, commissioned by the Home Office and authored by barrister James Ewins, strongly endorses this assessment. The review found “no evidence that a tie to a single employer does anything other than increase the risk of abuse and therefore increases actual abuse”. The review made it impossible for the government to deny that visa restrictions imposed on domestic workers create conditions under which abuse can flourish. The review recommended that workers be allowed to change employers and stay in the UK for up to two and a half years before returning home. It also urged the government to start collecting data on the number of women reporting abusive working conditions after entering the UK on the overseas domestic workers visa.
Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart, who has worked closely on the issue of domestic workers, claimed the government deliberately published the review just before Christmas to avoid parliamentary scrutiny: “They shoved the review out with a dump of reports, suggesting they don’t want to address the findings… It seems clear that the government doesn’t want to confront the Saudi authorities or Saudi practices where they are an affront to human rights. They are obsessed with bringing down immigration numbers, and that obsession trumps concerns for human rights.”
“Since this visa came into force in 2012 the government has received widespread condemnation of the conditions it is imposing on thousands of vulnerable women travelling with foreign employers into the UK, often with little choice, who are given no protection or agency when they are here,” said Kate Roberts, head of policy at Kalayaan, a domestic worker rights group. Roberts added that domestic workers are often treated like an “extra piece of hand luggage” by their employers. Campaigners have argued that the existing arrangements are “bringing kafala to the UK”, a reference to the sponsorship system in place across many Gulf countries that ties migrant workers to employers and prevents them from leaving their job or returning home without permission.
Roughly 17,000 overseas domestic worker visas were issued by UK authorities last year. The large majority of visas for domestic staff came from the Gulf States. Half of all visa applications were from families from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Many live in some of London’s most exclusive locations, cooking, cleaning and caring for the children of a rich foreign elite. But for many overseas domestic workers, the veneer of reflected glamour conceals a much darker world, one in which they are denied a passport, salary, food and even sleep while working 20-hour days. Unable to sever ties with their employers due to UK visa restrictions, and fearful of deportation or even arrest if they turn to the authorities, their only real source of hope lies with the small but increasingly vocal group of women who help them escape, and are now fighting to secure a change in the law
A Philippine domestic worker who was left without food by her employer and prevented from sleeping, is fighting to stay in the UK after she was positively identified as a victim of trafficking. “When I called the Filipino embassy and told them my employer was abusing me, they said that under the tied visa I had to return to Saudi Arabia with him,” she said. The women interviewed had neither been informed of their rights under UK law nor seen their contract at the visa application stage, as required under the terms of the visa. Many said they had been pressed to sign the visa form without understanding what they were doing.
Campaigners say domestic workers who leave abusive employers are often pressed to leave the UK as soon as they are identified as a victims of trafficking. This makes many vulnerable women reluctant to engage with authoritie, pushing them into illegal work in order to keep sending money home to their families. The standard recovery period for trafficking victims is 45 days. Domestic workers may stay for six months if they can support themselves without access to public funds or support.
Phoebe Dimacali, president of the Filipino Domestic Workers Association, says women denied the opportunity to continue working in the UK risk being trafficked back to the Gulf. “Life in the Philippines is really hard, so even if we know that life in the Gulf is really risky, we take that risk and hope we won’t be one of those victims,” she said. “We know that if we go home to the Philippines, returning to the Gulf is the only option.” Dimacali said many women are too scared to enter the NRM [the national referral mechanism (NRM), a government process set up to identify victims of trafficking] because of the immigration repercussions. “Recently, a woman was recognised as a victim of trafficking but was told to leave the UK within a few weeks,” she said. “Word gets round to the other women and it makes them afraid to approach the Home Office.”