Tuesday, January 15, 2019

UK's Invisible Slaves

Many women, mostly Filipino, come to the UK with a promise of income and regular hours, working as housekeepers or nannies to send money back home to their own families. There are nearly 19,000 people on overseas domestic visas in the UK. these women are socially isolated. There are few examples of true modern slavery, but these are undoubtedly some of them.

“Their status as workers is blurred by the language – like ‘maids’ or ‘domestic servants’ – that’s used to describe them,” says Joyce Jiang, a lecturer at the University of York and researcher into the experiences of immigrant workers. Many of these women have had to leave their own children to look after those of their employers – and because of the intimate nature of the work, they are often seen as “labourers of love” or “part of the family”, which obscures how little they are paid.
As part of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policies as home secretary, the UK government changed the law in 2012 so that migrant domestic workers (MDWs) could only come to the UK on a non-renewable six-month “tied visa” – one that bound them to a single, named employer. This means that if their employer is exploitative or abusive, their main means of escape – moving to another employer – is closed to them. Before 2012, an MDW could renew their visa over a period of five years and then apply for indefinite leave to remain and ultimately British citizenship. 

After lobbying by the Voice of Domestic Workers (VODW), a grassroots self-help group, the trade union Unite and Kalayaan, a charity for domestic workers, the government commissioned an independent review of the UK’s domestic visa policies in 2015. Attaching the visa to a specific employer, the review found, increased these women’s vulnerability to exploitation, while living outside the law “increases their vulnerability to further abuse”. The report’s author, James Ewins, recommended an unconditional right for migrant domestic workers to change their employer and the right to apply for an annual extension of their visa for a maximum of two-and-a-half years. The government rejected this recommendation. All it did, in 2016, as part of the Modern Slavery Act, was slightly modify the harsh restrictions it had introduced in 2012. A MDW now could change employer, but only within the six-month original visa period, which could not then be extended. In reality, most workers have to leave – or go underground.

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a framework for identifying and supporting victims of human trafficking that, since 2016, also encompasses slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour. The MDWs who go down this route successfully can get a two-year visa, after which they must return home. But it’s an imperfect solution, says Begonia, Marissa Begonia, a VODW coordinator. “You need to have been raped, beaten or starved to death to get it. If you’re not paid for months, is that not abuse or servitude?”

In 2011, the UN International Labour Organization introduced the Domestic Workers Convention to improve the living and working rights of domestic workers. It has been ratified by 26 countries – including Ireland, Germany and Italy – but the UK is not among them. Meanwhile, migrant domestic workers in the UK remain mostly unprotected by laws that the rest of us take for granted – they are not covered by health and safety laws, for example, or the Working Time Regulations 1998, and employers often don’t comply with the national minimum wage.


No comments: