Thousands of women who have come to the UK from outside the EU to accompany an existing employer in their private household on an overseas domestic worker visa, usually so they can send their earnings to families in their home countries.
In 2012, the government introduced restrictions which removed the rights of holders of the visa to change employer and renew their stay in the UK. Instead, workers entered on a six-month, non-renewable visa, on which they could not change employer, no matter the reason. Following a damning review of the visa scheme in 2016, the Home Office made changes to it which allowed domestic workers to switch employers within the six-month term of their visa, and to apply for further leave to remain as a domestic worker for up to two years if they were recognised as having been enslaved under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s framework for identifying modern slavery victims.
However, charities supporting domestic workers say the changes have made no difference to the levels of abuse and domestic servitude reported to them by women who have successfully escaped their workplaces, and that people are often left fearful of deportation after fleeing. Kalayaan, the UK’s leading organisation for domestic workers, along with the Voice of Domestic Workers, are calling on ministers to urgently reinstate the original overseas domestic worker visa. They argue that, due to the hidden and unregulated nature of domestic work, combined by the workers’ status as a migrant and dependence on their employer for work, immigration status and accommodation, it is placing domestic workers at heightened risk of abuse and exploitation. Campaigners say that in order to prevent people from being left in a state of limbo after escaping from abusive situations – and to ensure that domestic workers aren’t discouraged from fleeing exploitation – ministers must revert the overseas domestic worker visa back to its pre-2012 requirements.
Kate Roberts, UK and Europe manager at Anti-Slavery International, said: “People who hold the overseas domestic worker visa have been repeatedly shown that restrictive immigration measures facilitate the exploitation of migrant workers. Domestic workers migrate because they need to work. People are making really difficult choices to work and support their families. And if they don’t have this right it work, it’s something exploiters can abuse to create this vulnerability. People need to be able to exercise their rights.” Ms Roberts pointed out that under the previous visa, domestic workers were able to exercise rights and leave and get another job without jeopardising their livelihood and their immigration status. “None of this is rocket science. It’s frustrating that it’s something domestic workers have been saying for so long, and they’re presenting a solution, but are not being listened to,” she added.
Marissa Begonia, a domestic worker and founding member of the Voice of Domestic Workers, said, “The government is so proud of their Modern Slavery Act and says it’s a world leader in ending modern slavery and trafficking. Yet forcing migrant domestic workers to apply under the NRM is not a solution but another form of exploitation. The pre-2012 visa protected and recognised us as workers because that’s what we are.”