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Protect domestic workers in the UK from slavery

Background: protecting domestic workers in the UK from slavery

Every year there are around 15,000 people, mostly women, arriving to the UK on the so called Overseas Domestic Workers (ODW) visa. It is a special six-months-visa for domestic workers – nannies, cleaners, cooks etc. - who arrive to Britain together with their families they worked for prior to their arrival.

The vulnerability of domestic workers, who work in private households and not recognised as being regular workers entitled to regular workers’ rights is well documented. This vulnerability is greatly increased for workers arriving from the Middle East countries - which make up around three quarters of ODW visa applications - where the ‘kafalah’ sponsorship system tying the worker to their employer facilitates the abuse of workers on a large scale.

Stories of women working 15 hours a day without a day off, not being able to go out as the door is locked from the outside when your employer leaves, not having a room to sleep in, being regularly shouted at, beaten or sexually assaulted are all too common.

Until 2012, the ODW visa had the right to leave an abusive employer and seek another written into it. However, the Government removed this right, making domestic workers face a choice: stay with the abusive employer or leave and face deportation.

This is the de facto legalisation of trafficking of migrants for forced domestic labour.

Evidence gathered by London based organisation supporting domestic workers Kalayaan amongst their clients points to greatly increased levels of abuse amongst the workers arriving on the tied visas:
  • Migrant domestic workers (MDWs) who were tied to their employers were twice as likely to report having being physically abused as those who were not tied (16% and 8%).
  • Almost three quarters of those tied reported never being allowed out of the house where they lived and worked unsupervised (71%), compared to under half on the original visa (43%).
  • 65% of tied MDWs didn’t have their own rooms, so shared with the children or slept in the kitchen or lounge, compared with 34% of those not tied.
  • 53% worked more than 16 hours a day compared to 32% of those who had the right to change employer.
  • 60% of those on the tied visa reported pay of less than £50 a week, compared with 36% on the original visa.
The Modern Slavery Act didn’t address the issue. It allowed the workers to change an employer only after receiving "conclusive grounds" decision from the National Referral Mechanism (NRM – a mechanism used to identify victims of trafficking in the UK) confirming that they have been a victim of trafficking. 

It created a situation where a person has to first prove to the government scheme that they are victims of a crime before being able to lawfully flee their abuser.

Furthermore, our research has shown that people from outside of European Union have less than 20% chance of being recognised as a victim of trafficking by the NRM (as opposed to over 80% for EU citizens), and there currently is no option of appealing a negative decision.

This means that leaving an abusive employer would be incredibly risky.

In the face refusal to apply necessary protections in the Modern Slavery Act, the government commissioned a review of the visa issue and stated the intention to implement the review’s recommendations.

James Ewins, who carried out the review, was clear in his recommendations: overseas domestic workers should be allowed to change employers AND be able to apply for the visa extension up to two and a half years.

However, the Government has opted not to implement the review recommendations in full. It committed to allow domestic workers to change employers but only for the duration of the six-month period for which they were originally admitted.

Allowing a domestic worker to change employer but only within the short 6-month period will do little to protect them; it will be extremely difficult for them to find alternative employment in this short- time frame.

There are a few good things in the Government’s response, such as introducing compulsory meetings for the ODWs with authorities in a neutral space in which they can be given advice and an opportunity to alert someone to their situation if they need to. This is a first step to ensuring that domestic workers can feel that the authorities care about them. But without providing them the most basic of protections and ensure they can leave an employer and seek a new one it will mean very little.

The latest development on the issue came during the House of Lords debate on the Immigration Bill. Lord Hylton tabled an amendment which gives effect to the main recommendations made in James Ewins’ review.  

The Bill will have to be voted upon by the House of Commons, where the Government holds a majority, so the amendment is likely to be overthrown, unless enough Conservative MPs vote in line with their conscience rather than the Government line.

The UK Parliament has debated changes to these unjust rules. Unfortunately, despite many of our supporters taking action and asking their MPs to protect domestic workers from slavery, the House of Commons rejected the amendment to implement necessary changes to the visa rules.
The government is now likely to implement the changes to the visa it recently proposed, allowing overseas domestic workers change their employers but only within a six months' visa length.

We will now consider our options on ways to improve that situation. We will keep everyone updated.

We will not rest until domestic workers in the UK are properly protected from slavery.