29 February 2012
This morning’s announcement by Home Secretary Theresa May to change the rules for migrant domestic workers, including the removal of the right to change employer, will facilitate slavery and trafficking, say human rights charities Kalayaan and Anti-Slavery International.
Migrant domestic workers are vulnerable to horrific abuse and exploitation as has come to light in a number of recent high profile cases in the criminal courts. Of the 326 individuals who registered with Kalayaan in 2011, 54% experienced psychological abuse, 18% physical and 7% sexual abuse. Exploitation was also rife, with 76% not allowed a day off, 53% working 16 hours-a-day and 60% paid under £50 per week.
The changes would mean that any domestic workers able to escape abuse will immediately lose their right to reside in the UK, therefore greatly reduce the likelihood that they would seek help from the authorities for fear of being deported. This policy would lead to the victims becoming ‘illegal’ and perpetrators going unpunished.
Campaigners believe that the removal of the legal right to escape an abusive situation would result in domestic workers, desperate to earn money for the survival of themselves and their families, going underground, creating an underclass of unprotected and undocumented workers not protected under UK labour laws.
Jenny Moss, Community Advocate from Kalayaan, a London based organisation that supports migrant domestic workers, said: “The decision to remove the right to change employer, and therefore remove an important protection from abuse, turns back the clock 15 years to the days when domestic workers were deported for experiencing abuse. This decision makes no sense, its effects are entirely disproportionate to its aims and runs counter to Prime Minister David Cameron’s commitment to fighting slavery, made on Anti-Slavery Day in October last year.”
Before the right to change employer was introduced, abuse was even higher with, with 39% of domestic workers reporting physical abuse, 12% reporting sexual abuse, 89% having no day off and 100% reporting having worked an average of 17 hours-a-day.
Audrey Guichon, Domestic Work Programme Co-ordinator, Anti-Slavery International, said: “By tying domestic workers to one employer the Government will effectively be licensing slavery, allowing employers to bring workers to the UK without providing those same workers any way of challenging or escaping abuse if it occurs. These proposed changes would give unscrupulous bosses the power to threaten workers with deportation if they do not comply with whatever they demand.
“The UK’s treatment of domestic workers will now mirror the situation across the middle east through the internationally condemned kafala system, where the lack of right to change employer without losing the right to residency has led to widespread abuse and high levels of domestic worker suicide.”
In June 2011, the UK government was one of just eight countries, including Sudan, which did not vote in favour of a new international convention that would help protect domestic workers from abuse and slavery.
Tracey accompanied her employers to the UK in 2009 from Qatar. She lived in poverty in India and left her husband and 4 young children behind to earn money for the family.
Tracey started work around 7am. She did cooking, cleaning, ironing and looked after the many guests of the house. She finished work between 10-12pm. However, she was on call throughout the night.
“If the family went out and came back late, or if guests stayed over I had to serve them. I slept on a mattress the hall, and was often always woken up by people coming in and out of the house. I did not have a single day off during the 3 years. My feet would swell up due to the lack of rest.”
After 3 years Tracey finally found the courage to flee, even though she had nowhere to go. When she came to Kalayaan she was destitute. In the 3 years she worked for the family paid she earned a total of £900.
Kalayaan explained her rights and that she was able to change employer. This was very important to Tracey.
“I am the breadwinner for my family. If I could not have changed employers would have had to stay and face the abuse as I needed the money I was promised for my family. If I could not change, where would I go?”
Tracey found a new employer and felt confident enough to take a legal action against the employers. This was settled out of court and Tracey regained some of the money she was owed.