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The UK is failing victims of modern slavery

If the government is to be believed, the United Kingdom’s system for supporting modern slavery victims is an open door and a route to sanctuary.

Some migrants, the government tells us, are “gaming the system” to avoid removal. Except, of course, there is no evidence to support these claims. The Home Office’s own agency for tackling modern slavery has disputed them, along with UN trafficking experts. By repeating unfounded claims of abuse, the government is embedding mistrust of victims in the system and promoting a pretext for denying support.

Domestic workers referred into the NRM often find themselves wondering whether it was all worth it

You need only speak to migrant domestic workers – hidden from view in the homes of London’s wealthiest residents – to see how this rhetoric seeps into the modern slavery system. From their first encounter, often via immigration enforcement officers, they are treated with suspicion. If they do not disclose all the information about their experience at once, they risk being accused by the Home Office of making up a story. This claim is especially surprising when it has long been widely accepted, including by the government, that it may take many months for a traumatised victim to disclose all the relevant information.

While the government alleges abuse of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s system for identifying and supporting victims of modern slavery – grassroots organisations like The Voice of Domestic Workers have long highlighted how poorly the system supports domestic workers.

The NRM is apparently “world-leading” – gold-plated, as the Prime Minister put it in his recent asylum statement. Yet this description bears no resemblance to the experiences of domestic workers. Many support organisations are struggling even to get potential victims considered for referral into the system. Referrals can only be made by organisations designated by the Home Office as ‘first responder’ organisations, a mix of public authorities and NGOs. Many NGO first responders are working at full capacity and struggling to cope with the number of referrals, hardly surprising given they receive no government funding to fulfil this role.

On the pretext of migrants exploiting the system, the Prime Minister announced that the Home Office will now require “objective evidence” of modern slavery, not just suspicion. Leaving aside the widely accepted impact of trauma on memory and recall, many domestic workers will struggle to gather “objective evidence” to support their testimony. They generally work alone, behind closed doors, often without payslips, a written contract or bank account. Fear of not having enough evidence is likely to deter many from seeking help and entering the NRM, leaving them at risk of further exploitation. For those who do come forward, it will fall to first responders to spend extra time gathering this evidence at a time when these organisations are already working at their limits. Meanwhile, the victim is unsupported and possibly still in, or at risk of, exploitation.

If referred to the NRM with an expired visa, a domestic worker is not granted the right to work during the long wait for a decision, leaving them at risk of destitution or further exploitation. Any offer of accommodation is likely to be far away from work opportunities and, therefore, unattractive to domestic workers whose visa restricts them from domestic work. While potential victims are meant to receive an outreach caseworker and have access to counselling, many report receiving neither.

Despite its flaws, for many domestic workers, the NRM remains the only route out of exploitation. The government has made no effort to enforce domestic workers’ employment rights despite their serious vulnerability. Meanwhile, migrant domestic workers’ visas are tied to their employer and limited to six months. This combination of immigration policy and a lack of labour market enforcement leaves domestic workers at the mercy of ruthless employers. Until the government understands that domestic workers are, first and foremost, exploited workers, not victims of trafficking, the NRM will continue to be the only option for many.

Far from exploiting a “gold-plated” system, domestic workers referred into the NRM often find themselves wondering whether it was all worth it: to be questioned, doubted, treated with suspicion and left in limbo for years, waiting for the government to assess their case.

To assert repeatedly that many claim to be victims in bad faith will only further entrench mistrust of victims of exploitation. Rather than accuse vulnerable migrants of abusing the system, the government should listen to how it is failing them and change it for the better.

Marissa Begonia, director of The Voice of Domestic Workers. Dugald Johnson, training officer at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX).

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