In 2019, the UK government issued just under 23,000 Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visas, aimed at workers temporarily accompanying their employers from abroad. They are valid for six months. About half of these were issued to workers from the Philippines. Around 200 to 300 workers enter the country with a diplomatic household every year.
A 2017 freedom of information request shows that more than 70 percent of ODW visa applications to the UK are from Gulf countries whose kafala migrant sponsorship system, also used in Lebanon and Jordan, has been described by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as "inherently problematic".
"The kafala system places this undue power with the employer that is magnified in relation to domestic workers," Ryszard Cholewinski, a senior Migration Specialist in the ILO's Regional Office for Arab States, explains, adding that live-in domestic workers in hard-to-monitor private homes are at particularly high risk of forced labour.
"The ILO's forced labour indicators include things like withholding of passports and restricted movement of workers, which is exacerbated in the case of domestic workers as many of them are unable to leave the house," Cholewinski adds. A lack of social security often means that even middle-income families in Gulf countries are forced to hire outside help to care for children and the elderly. "Employers feel that they have made an investment and that the worker should stay with them for a number of years," Cholewinski says.
The ILO estimates that 80 percent of the at least 67 million adult domestic workers worldwide are women, and that one in five is an international migrant.
In the UK, changes to the immigration rules in 2012 introduced a tied visa system that critics argued merely recreated the kafala, as a worker could not quit their job without becoming undocumented and at risk of deportation. The government countered that victims of abuse could be channelled through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK's framework for modern slavery victims, with referrals made by designated first responders including NGOs and the police. An independent review of the ODW visa, commissioned by the government and published in 2015, recognised that the UK was inviting an average of 17,000 "potentially vulnerable individuals" into the country every year and recommended that workers be given a universal right to change employer and apply for visa extensions. As a result, domestic workers are now able to change employer while their six-month visa is still valid. But critics say the time limit makes the changes merely nominal.
Theresa May (who was then Home Secretary) had aimed for her political legacy to be leading the global fight against modern slavery. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act was hailed as "landmark legislation"aimed at making it easier to prosecute criminals - with the most serious offenders facing a life sentence - and to protect victims. But the latter ran counter to the Conservative government's hardline immigration policies - designed to create a "hostile environment" for undocumented migrants. The government argued that the rules governing the ODW visa would work to prevent those who were not abused using it as a way into the country, while still offering protection to genuine victims. In practice, victims may spend years with an insecure immigration status that gives them limited or no right to work or access welfare, essentially keeping them in a cycle of exploitation that the coronavirus pandemic - with its accompanying disruption and rise in unemployment - has only made worse.
There has been a year-on-year rise in the number of referrals to the NRM. In 2019, 10,627 potential victims were referred - a 52 percent increase from 2018, and nearly double the 2017 figure. But observers believe the number of referrals reflects just the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to domestic workers, academics and frontline workers say that many prefer not to be referred for fear of what the process will involve.
"There is absolutely no guarantee that someone who has been ill-treated and possibly trafficked will manage to be recognised as a victim of trafficking," Virginia Mantouvalou, a professor of human rights and labour law at University College London (UCL), explains.
Data suggests the uncertainty is magnified for potential victims without a UK or European Union passport: only three percent of those from outside the EU who were referred in 2019 had received a final decision confirming them as victims (known as "conclusive grounds") by the beginning of 2020, while the figure for UK and EU nationals was 14 percent and seven percent respectively. Overall, eight in 10 referrals had only received an initial "reasonable grounds" decision - identifying them as potential victims.
According to the charity Kalayaan, which has been assisting domestic workers in the UK for more than 30 years, domestic workers who enter the NRM face an average wait of 24 months before being recognised. Potential victims whose six-month visa expires before they are recognised as such are unable to work legally in the country while their case is decided and are expected to survive on £39.60 ($52) a week provided by the government as part of its victim support programme. In some cases, they are provided with accommodation, but according to Kalayaan this can be difficult to set up and many survivors opt instead for community support.
Despite government reassurances that everybody is entitled to care regardless of immigration status, undocumented workers are often afraid of accessing healthcare for fear of being reported.
"There is a huge discrepancy between referrals under the NRM and prosecutions under the Modern Slavery Act," says Professor Mantouvalou. "This may be due to the difficulty of the situation, the fact this is a particularly hidden crime, because the police don't have the right training yet. There are great weaknesses in the system." Immunity that applies to diplomatic households further complicates the picture. "At the same time, the problem is not just that you can't prosecute all these employers. The big problem is the vulnerability these workers have because of their visa. It's more effective to improve the visa, to strengthen the right of domestic workers, than to just start prosecuting all these mean employers," Mantouvalou adds.