This Year, we celebrate ‘International Domestic Workers Day’ in Houses of Parliament which has highlighted the poor work conditions for migrant domestic workers in the UK. Six Years on since the UK Government removed all rights of domestic workers, little has been done to redress the horrific abuse that domestic workers suffer not just in the hands of merciless employers but also the tied visa system of the United Kingdom. Not allowed to renew visa, the domestic workers have become undocumented and once they lost their immigration status, they are forced to hide themselves and work underground under the current hostile environment in the UK.
There are approximately 18,000 Overseas Domestic Worker Visa (odwv) issued every year according to the Home Office’s data. UKVI estimates that 32% of those visa holders remain in the UK for more than 42 days. They accompanied their employers who are visiting the UK with a valid visa for 6 Months either in private household or diplomat household. Overseas Domestic Workers could be nannies, cleaners, cooks, drivers and other household chores.
Before 2012 Overseas Domestic Workers (ODW) had the ability to change employer, the right to renew visa, the right to settlement after 5 Years of active work and the right to apply for British citizenship after a year of settlement. These rights were all scrapped in 2012 by then Coalition Government tying ODW to one employer, a tied visa system of slavery. The moment they become undocumented they are unable to claim their rights including unpaid wages. This came a year after the UK Government abstained from ratifying the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention on protection for domestic workers (now ILO C189, Decent Work for domestic workers),claiming there was already sufficient protection in placed, labour protections which they already removed. To date there are already 25 countries that have ratified the ILOC189 But for domestic workers in the UK it’s a long cry for justice.
Since the passage of Modern Slavery Act 2015 the ODW VISA has been under review following James Ewins’ independent review which report recommended to allow overseas domestic workers (odws) to change employer that will give domestic workers escape route from abuse and exploitation and untie the visa system. However, the recommendation to allow domestic workers to renew the odw visa was not reinstated, leaving domestic workers more vulnerable with the chance of becoming undocumented. The re-instatement of the rights to change employer is meaningless and useless without the right to renew visa. This doesn’t untie the domestic workers to prevent abuse and exploitation. The following testimonies of members of The Voice of Domestic Workers we have had rescued from abusive employment explained why;
‘’When I escaped from my abusive employer who brought me here in the UK. I managed to find job the following day but I was caught by the new system of 6 Months visa non-renewable so this employer even if she would like to continue employing me, she had to let me go. From this employer I have been to three different abusive employers, it was hard to be discriminated because to these employers I am no one with no documents and no identity, that they could anything they want to do, that I don’t deserved decent pay, that I should work round the clock. I’m tired of this repetitive abuse but what can I do?’’, Precious
‘’The immigration officers knocked on our door, I quickly hide behind the blind of the window. My housemate opened the door, they were the immigration officers! They interrogated my housemate then arrested her. Each time I heard someone knocked at the door, my whole body would tremble. I escaped from my abusive employer and tried to live a normal life. The sight of immigration officers terrified me. But why is it escaping from abusive employment is a crime?’ Mary
‘’My employer would cut my salary and even beat me for every little mistake I made. There was even an incident where my employer poured hot cooking oil on me. I worked for 24 hours each day 7 days per week, no rest, no day off. I could only eat if there was left over if none then I had nothing to eat. My body was so weak, I thought of my 3 children back. May I ask everyone, am I not human being to be treated this way?’ Janette
‘’I suffered stroke while at work. My employer brought me to hospital but claimed she found me on the road and that she didn’t know me and left. I survived this stroke but with the kind of disease attached to my overseas domestic worker tied slave visa I have now, is there a cure? ‘’ Lyn Lyn
‘‘My employers locked me in the hotel room with no food to eat, the male would sexually harassed me and the female would hit me each time she was frustrated. I couldn’t take my hunger anymore, I called the reception to unlock the room and so I fled. Unfortunately, I thought I found a good family already but the son of this family repeatedly raped me, I thought in this country there is human rights, where are they?’’ Jasim
‘’My employer brought me here in 2014 but I didn’t know which airport we landed, they kept my passport. In a place I didn’t even know where, I was forced to work 24 hours, 7 days a week. I was cage with little food to eat. I managed to escape but to what amount of exploitation I have had to suffered to access protection?’’ Amara
When we started The Voice of Domestic Workers (VODW) in 2009, we also continue to rescue domestic workers from abusive employer households apart from providing education, raising awareness to empower domestic workers .. We are on call 24 hours 7 days a week, and we have had successfully rescued domestic workers many domestic workers coming from London as well as other cities such as Manchester, Brighton, Oxfordshire, Scotland and other places in the UK. VODW provide them instant, practical support. I am not sure how they find us but my phone is with me 24 hours, always ready to respond whenever needed. It is not for us to just say ‘don’t run away’, you will be undocumented!’ as every single second could be a matter of life. To others, our life may be nothing but we have families to support, thus our life means surviving the lives of our families we left back home.
VODW surveyed over 100 London-based migrant domestic workers. This is what they told us.
49% are expected to work 50 hours or more per week, with 16% expected to work over 60 hours.
However, many report that they work more than even those excessive expectations, with many describing working weeks which reach over 100 hours in reality.
One quarter do not have an employment contract.
Those who do have an employment contract report the terms not being respected. For example, salaries are not paid, leaves are not given. Workers report being made to sleep in the same room with children or a baby so they are literally on call all night.
Quote in support of the above: "The contract is different from my actual work. The work is unlimited. I cannot have time off if they need me. I get no rest days and even for eating I can hardly find time."
Second quote, answering whether her contract reflects the reality of her work: "No, no salary, no day off, leftovers only, I just survived with water."
Many workers report being paid below the legal national minimum wage rates, for example one worker is paid £300 for a 50 hour week, and another is paid £260 for a 42 hour week, both of which equate to around £6/hour. Another worker reports being paid just £250 for a sixty hour week which is £4/hour.
Unpaid overtime is repeatedly reported.
Nearly half of those surveyed do not have their own bedroom in the house (48.5%0
40% do not have enough food to eat
43% have experienced verbal or physical abuse, or sexual harassment, at work
Quotes in support of above: "My employer is violent...she would throw things at me" - "I feel threatened"
20% of those who responded to the question about abuse report being sexually harassed
Currently, the Home office provide a six months pilot ‘overseas domestic workers information meeting’ which aim to provide domestic workers with information on their rights while in the UK and contacts if they feel they are, for example victim of exploitation or abuse. This was born out of the James Ewins report recommendations. The UK Government is clear that allowing migrant domestic workers to renew visa is never on their agenda when they are very busy with BREXIT. http://www.kalayaan.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Minimum-standards-for-ODW-information-meetings-15-03-2018.pdf
The Voice of Domestic Workers will continue to fight and campaign for the rights and welfare of migrant domestic workers. We continue to demand for immigration reform including campaign for amnesty for all migrants and refugees in line with the Windrush scandal there’s a renewed hope for a call for amnesty. We hope to launch our very own ‘Domestic Workers Bill’ this year similar to the victory of ‘Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights’ in the US. Like any other workers Domestic Workers deserved equal rights and dignity as workers and human beings.