The House of Commons has refused to include in the Modern Slavery Bill extra protection for migrant domestic workers on tied visas. NGOs and human rights groups claim this visa system worsens the situation of workers who are already facing ‘high levels of abuse, including forced labour, while working in the UK’.
Elvira did not know where she was. On a cold January day, walking along a street somewhere in London, she was alone, lost and scared. Escaping from her place of work meant breaking the law. But she had had enough, enough of abuses and insults and days of confinement and eating leftovers. At the other end of the phone line, Regina de los Reyes tried to guess Elvira’s location by asking her to describe what buildings and shopping stores she could see. ‘Finally we rescued her,’ says Regina, who works for the Filipino Domestic Workers’ Association (FDWA).
What Elvira went through is not an isolated case. She is one of many migrant domestic workers who come to work in Britain and find themselves ‘in a situation of slavery’, as the president of Justice For Domestic Workers (J4DW), Marissa Begonia, puts it.
‘Rape is happening more often than we think. Physical and verbal abuses are very common as well, but what we are mostly seeing is employers not paying their employees after long working days of up to 16 hours, with no free days,’ Begonia says.
Begonia points at ‘tied visas’, implemented by the Conservative-led coalition government in April 2012, as one of the reasons for this level of abuse. Under the current legislation, workers have no right to change employer: they are only allowed to remain in Britain for as long as they work for the same person. If they leave their employer, they immediately become illegal immigrants.
The Modern Slavery Bill is a much-publicized, brand-new legal frame to ‘enhance support and protection for victims’ and ‘ensure perpetrators receive suitably severe sentences for these appalling crimes’. However, every attempt to include the overseas domestic workers’ claims has been rejected. The last one was on 17 March, when MPs voted against the amendment made by the Lords to include the ‘tied visas’ in the Bill.
Karen Bradley, Minister for Modern Slavery and Organized Crime, discarded the amendment and urged other MPs to do the same – and it was finally rejected, by 276 votes to 209. Bradley, however, promised to support those domestic workers who ended up being victims of modern slavery.
Elvira had arrived in London in January 2014 after living and working over a year in Qatar, where she was paid less than promised, was given no time off and suffered verbal abuse. Her employer, who worked at Qatar Airways, moved to London with his sister, who needed medical care. Elvira went with them, but her situation did not improve.
‘The woman [her employer’s sister] did not let me eat at all,’ says Elvira. ‘Even when my employer brought food for the two of us she screamed at me and only gave me leftovers. Every time my employer wasn’t around she went crazy and I was scared she could do something bad to me.’
Her employer was about to return to the Gulf and, fearing she could not cope without his presence, Elvira made contact via Facebook with another Filipina, who told her about the FDWA. That is how she gathered the strength to escape, only 13 days after landing in London.
Elvira can today talk openly about her experience because she is going through the process of being recognized as a victim of trafficking. It is not an easy process and normally requires legal assistance.
Every year, the government issues between 15,000 and 16,000 Overseas Domestic Worker visas for those in private families. Around 200 visas are issued annually to those working in diplomatic households.
‘We have not seen any change in the number of overseas workers after the introduction of the tied visas,’ says Izza Leghtas, Human Rights Watch Western Europe researcher. ‘The government sees migrant domestic workers as low-skilled workers and that is what they are trying to curb. They want to reduce the number of immigrants and changed the law for that purpose.’
Working in a household, invisible to everyone but your employer, can be dangerous, even if your house is in a high-class area of Central London. ‘This kind of job makes people vulnerable to abuse because everything happens inside the house and there is nowhere to go and ask for help,’ says Legthas. ‘Under the old visa [system], the women could escape and find another job. Now the ones who do [escape] end up with informal jobs, scared and undocumented.’
Research by London-based charity Kalayaan suggests working conditions are much harder for those under a tied visa. For example, the percentage of women abused doubles (16 per cent compared to 8 per cent for female workers on non-tied visas). Two out of three do not have their own rooms, ‘often sleeping in the kitchen or lounge or sharing with the children’. Finally, the charity has detected a significant increase in the percentage of persons trafficked when they come with tied rather than untied visas (69 per cent compared to 26 per cent).
In 2011 government refused to ratify the International Organization Domestic Workers Convention, which would have given domestic workers the same rights as other workers.
Away from numbers, figures and reports, Elvira now lives in relative stability. The Qatari family she escaped from did not even bother trying to locate her. She now combines three part-time jobs with three different families.
‘It is better this way, without troubles. I go, clean for three or four hours and leave,’ she explains.