Imagine being legally employed but having next to no rights. Being unable to enjoy some of the most fundamental benefits of normal work practices – like having a cap put on the amount of hours you can be made to work in a given week, or a limit on the hours you have to put in at night. Imagine your employer doesn’t have to give you adequate breaks in accordance with health and safety guidelines. Imagine enduring a miserable and debilitating work-life with the following proviso: you are tied to your job and if, at any point, you attempt to escape by applying to work somewhere else, somewhere better – you are seen to have committed a criminal act which is punishable by the state.
If all of that has a distinctly Draconian flavour – the kind of crushing immiseration you might expect to encounter in the pages of 1984 rather than a modern liberal democracy – you might be surprised to know that a section of the work force in Britain today is trapped in exactly this type of situation. Overseas domestic workers – from the Middle East, Asia and Africa in the main – enter Britain on a specific kind of visa contract that which renders them vulnerable to a host of abuses.
A report by Human Rights Watch tallies these in a depressing litany of exploitation, peppered by first-hand accounts of workers made to work for 18 hours a day without breaks, or workers locked in the house and surviving on scraps of leftover food, or forbidden from owning mobile phones and prevented from making contact with the outside world.
The situation, though, is doubly paradoxical. In late 2013 the coalition government proposed a welcome draft bill that would seek to clamp down on modern forms of slavery and forced labour, with a special emphasis on human-trafficking. The bill, however, makes no provision for the situation of domestic labourers – while at the same time the parliamentary legislation which does reference them has been anything but kind during recent years.
In April 2012, for instance, the same British government now so keen to advertise its anti-slavery credentials passed a bill which eliminated the right of migrant domestic labourers to change jobs – by implementing the notorious ‘tied visa’. And in 2011 Britain was one of the few states not to vote for an international treaty designed to ensure that workers in the domestic sphere enjoy the same rights as those elsewhere.
In some ways, restricting the freedom of labour militates against the flexibility and flux that free market economics is supposed to encourage and which, it is said, provides a cornerstone of modern conservatism. The legal procedures which have helped tie these domestic labourers to unmitigated servitude have much in common with the Kafala system which operates in many Gulf states: a system which denies employees the opportunity to leave their job, and, in some cases, the country itself. And it seems more than just rich coincidence that the conservative capitulation before more archaic forms of labour practice has taken place at a time when capital flows between the Gulf states and Britain are reaching ‘epic proportions’ – when the British government itself is desperate to solidify economic ties abroad in light of the ongoing economic crisis.
Wealth-saturated Saudi Arabia has remained a client of particular interest, with 349 British companies operating inside its borders; at the same time, back in Britain, newspapers are occasionally punctuated by a story of brutal grotesquery when an endemic culture of abuse perpetrated by a wealthy élite toward its servants suddenly attains visible and murderous dimensions.
But perhaps the coalition is unable to act decisively, paralysed as it has been by the sheer venom of the anti-immigrant rhetoric it has unleashed. Overseas domestic labourers are estimated to come into the country in modest numbers (around 15,000 each year) and the vast majority of these will return with their employers; nevertheless, the blustery, back-bench brigadiers who form the bedrock of suspicion and xenophobia (which the conservative party rather whimsically describes as its ‘traditional’ base) is convinced that to grant these foreign workers some level of humanity would be the inevitable prelude to a collective and spontaneous ‘running away’ – an exodus which would, no doubt, see immigration levels rise and the benefits system put under an intolerable duress.
But ‘running away’, as journalist Alastair Sloan points out, ‘is not abuse of the visa system. This is what most would simply call changing jobs.’ And who wouldn’t want to change jobs, if your working conditions left you especially vulnerable to economic, physical and even sexual abuse? To prevent people from exercising this freedom is more than an indifferent and prosaic bureaucratic act. It is a violation of right.
Tony Mckenna is a writer based in the UK. His work has been featured by The Huffington Post, New Statesman, ABC Australia, The United Nations, The Progressive, New Humanist, Adbusters, In These Times, and others.