Elvira’s Story

Elvira is from the Philippines. In order to support her family, Elvira migrated to Qatar to work as a domestic worker for a family that later brought her with them to the UK. Her employers exploited and abused her. Thankfully, the Filipino Domestic Workers Association in the UK was able to help Elvira after she fled her abusive employers.

I decided to go abroad because my income in my work is not enough to feed my children. In Qatar they are treating me like a slave because they are not allowing me to go out. I work long hours from six in the morning to 12 midnight. Every day with no day off; I signed a contract for $400 but I only got $250. So I ran away. Philippine Domestic Worker Association is the one who helped me and they recognised me as a human traffic victim. The employer told me remember you are not legal here so you cannot complain. There are so many people who are undocumented who are scared. I only wanted to work, work to feed my family.’

Heading: Focus on Policy

Second heading: What is the government’s policy on modern slavery?

Modern slavery is a problem rife in the UK. Official figures put the number at 13,000 people living as slaves in Britain, however the number could be much higher as slavery is often hidden from view. Many overseas domestic workers, who are more likely to be women, have been subject to physical abuse, exploitation, sexual harassment, and modern day slavery while working in the UK.

The Modern Slavery Bill Act of 2015 lays out the latest policy to address and combat slavery in the UK. The act issues guidance on identifying and supporting victims of slavery and penalties for abusers. However, domestic workers continue to face abuse and modern slavery is on the rise in the UK.

The government tries to combat modern slavery in three ways: 1) Enhancing law enforcement to catch abusers, 2) Improving the protection and support for victims and 3) Corporate regulations to monitor businesses and ensure they are aware of their worker’s rights. However the revised Overseas Domestic Worker Tied Visa system has made many domestic workers more vulnerable to abuse and has trapped many of them in domestic slavery.

What is the government’s policy on migrant domestic workers?

In 2012, the UK government introduced the overseas domestic worker ‘tied visa’ system. The Tied Visa Law means that migrant domestic workers are tied to their employers through their visa to work in the UK, therefore they will be deported if they try to leave their employer.

This is designed to prevent workers from switching jobs to stay in the UK. However this system has come under a lot of scrutiny, as many domestic workers are easily exploited, abused, and subject to modern slavery under this system. Despite this, the government has refused to end or reform the policy.

Roughly 15,000 to 17,000 overseas domestic worker visas are issued every year in the UK. These domestic workers often work as live-in nannies, cleaners, cooks, and chauffeurs for wealthier families. Little is done to check up on the conditions of these workers as private household employment is unregulated. The previous system allowed domestic workers to change their employer once they were settled in the UK, allowing them to flee their employers more easily if they were abused, without breaching immigration laws and facing deportation.

Levels of abuse reported to Kalayaan, an organisation that supports migrant domestic workers, found that the new visa system for domestic workers worsened the situation for domestic workers. Domestic workers on tied visas reported higher levels of abuse, including physical abuse and they were less likely to be paid at all. You can read their research briefing here http://www.kalayaan.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Kalayaan-3-year-briefing.pdf 

What are the issues with these approaches?

While Britain is keen to present itself as a leader against slavery, domestic workers have been subjected to exploitation, abuse, and slavery for far too long in the UK. The tied visa system has failed thousands of overseas domestic workers, making them more vulnerable to abuse. Many human rights organisations have highlighted the abuse domestic workers face when working overseas. Domestic workers are more likely to put up with abuse and exploitation from their employers in order to prevent deportation so that they can continue to support their families back home, often because of the difficult situations facing their families in their home countries, such as poverty. Even if they wanted to, it is extremely difficult for these workers to come forward about their cases. Those who do escape their employers become undocumented. The tied visa system strengthens employers and leaves them in charge of workers immigration status, visa, job and the knowledge of their rights.

The visa issuing process outlines that domestic workers should be informed of their rights in the UK. However, many employers are forcing their staff to sign visa papers without being properly informed. Some workers were unaware that their visa was tied to their employer until they managed to escape their employer.

There was a call to amend the tied visa system in March 2015, which called to allow domestic workers to be able to change their jobs when in the UK, however it was rejected by the House of Commons. The government must do more to help migrant domestic workers. Activists urge the UK government to ratify the International Labor Organization’s Convention 189 for Decent Work for Domestic Workers. There are also a number of other government recommendations outlined by Kalayaan, such as obliging employers to issue payslips, and pay domestic workers into a bank account in their name. See here for their other recommendations http://www.kalayaan.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Kalayaan-3-year-briefing.pdf

Organisations that support domestic workers

In addition to Kalayaan, the Filipino Domestic Workers Association (FDWA) provides much needed help and support to domestic workers in the UK. They help survivors of trafficking and exploitation, and those with abusive employers. They urge domestic workers who are experiencing this kind of abuse, or any problems with their employer, to get in touch with them; similarly if anyone knows a domestic worker in this situation, they should also get in touch. The FDWA also campaign for the government to sign the ILO Domestic Workers Convention.

For more information on the importance of the ILO convention, read this.

FDWA website http://fdwa.co.uk