New Internationalist

Britain turns back the clock on migrant domestic workers

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The government’s decision to end the overseas domestic worker visa has given bad employers opportunity to abuse, argues Paul Donovan.

Todd Baker, under a CC License
Campaigners say migrant domestic workers are now at more risk of abuse. Todd Baker, under a CC License

The atmosphere surrounding the debate on immigration rarely takes into account those that fall victim to policies premised on the need to reduce migrant numbers. In 2012 this manifested itself in the decision of the British government to end the overseas domestic worker visa and open up the opportunity for bad employers to abuse migrant workers.

One year on and there is already evidence of the abuse that often results when the employer is given total power.

Former domestic worker and now co-ordinator of Justice For Domestic Workers (J4DW) Marissa Begonia tells how one domestic worker encountered an employer ‘who would press the lid of a hot pot filled with boiling water all over her body for every little mistake she made.’

Another worker was raped by her male employer. ‘He threatened to accuse her of harming the child that she was looking after if she reported him,’ said Begonia. ‘Some women domestic workers bear scars on their faces due to hot beverages thrown at them, and scars on their arms from flat irons.’

A regressive system

Domestic workers don’t like going to the police, for fear that it will be they who finish up being treated as criminals, with immigration status the prime focus of the authorities.

It was this situation of abuse that led to the domestic worker visa being introduced in 1998. This gave the domestic workers employment rights, enabling them to change employers and extend visas.

Statistics confirm the worsening situation – some 62 per cent are paid nothing at all, compared to 14 per cent under the previous system

However, this all ended on 6 April 2012 when the domestic worker visa was abandoned on the basis of the need to cut net migration. The new arrangements saw the ‘tied visa’ reintroduced; it has a maximum duration of six months and ties the worker to the employer who brought them to Britain.

The stories of Mira and Sara illustrate the problems caused by the visa change: Mira, who is from the Philippines, ran away from her employers’ house after working around 16 hours a day with no time off. She shared a room with the children of the family she was working for and had no private time or space for herself at all. She kept all her belongings in a small space under the washing machine. She ate only leftovers, but as the family often went out to eat in the evening she frequently went hungry. She was forbidden from cooking additional food for herself. She was repeatedly screamed at.

Three months into her time in Britain, Mira had received no pay and was desperately worried about how her family at home were surviving without her remittances. Her employers had always kept her passport and her ‘trigger’ for escape was finding it left out one day.

Charles Hutchins, under a CC License
Domestic workers protest in London Charles Hutchins, under a CC License

The passport was a ‘new’ tied overseas domestic worker visa, which meant while she was still within its six month validity period she was prohibited from changing employer and it was not renewable beyond this time. Therefore there was no option within the immigration rules for her to remain in Britain.

An Indian national, Sara was bought to Britain from Kuwait on a domestic worker visa. Living in London, Sara was treated appallingly by her employers. She was not allowed to contact her family, was often locked in the house, not allowed out to go to church and expected to be constantly on call, looking after a small baby 24 hours a day.

Sara had no contacts in Britain, no money and her passport had been taken by her employers. During the five months that she had been working in Britain she had received no pay.

Sara was on the original domestic worker visa, so entitled to change employers so long as she only worked as a domestic worker in a private household. However, her visa was soon to expire and if she was to be able to renew her visa it was vital that she was in full-time employment.

She managed to escape, with one week before her visa was due to expire, and secured a job. Sara was able to apply for a new visa and is currently working in Britain as a nanny for a family. She pays her taxes and sends money home to support her family.

Casualties of hysteria

Already, statistics gathered by campaigning group Kalayaan confirm the worsening situation under the tied visa system. Some 62 per cent are paid nothing at all, compared to 14 per cent under the previous system. All workers on the tied visa were paid less than £100 ($152) a week compared to 60 per cent on the original visa. Eighty-five per cent did not have their own room, so slept with the children or in the kitchen or lounge, compared to 31 per cent on the original visa.

There was no justification for withdrawing the visa. It was not abused, the Home Office knew exactly where every domestic worker lived and worked because they had to supply this information yearly when they renewed their visa.

It is difficult to make any sense of this latest policy. The alleged intention to help cut migration seems unlikely, given that the removal of protections makes it far more likely that desperate workers will leave abusive employment and join the ranks of undocumented workers. They will then be untrackable and the Exchequer will lose the tax and national insurance that the workers had paid when legitimately employed.

Common sense dictates that there should be a return to the previous visa, granting full employment rights. However, given the nature of the immigration debate in Britain, whereby lives often seem to become the casualties of populist hysteria, it could be a long fight for those seeking to get back these most basic of rights for migrant workers.

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