If you drew up a list of which were the most vulnerable workers in our society, then domestic workers would come at or near the top for most of us. Within the category of domestic workers you might well single out those who live in the home of their employers, who are overwhelmingly women, as being particularly at risk. What then of domestic workers who live in the employers’ homes but are here in the UK on a visa? These most vulnerable of the vulnerable, live amongst us as the Overseas Domestic Workers (ODWs) – migrant workers of employers who are themselves migrants.
You do not have to just surmise that ODWs are vulnerable; there is evidence which emphatically confirms their vulnerability in shocking terms. In 2011 Kalayaan, an organisation which provides advice, advocacy and support services to ODWs, carried out research amongst it’s members. This research found 54% had experienced psychological abuse, 18% physical abuse and 7% sexual abuse. In addition 76% were not allowed a day off, 53% worked a 16 hour day and 60% received under £50 per week. Listening to the stories of some of these women is both gut wrenching and fills you with rage. Women far from their families and the communities they know, isolated in an house which many are forbidden to leave, subject to daily abuse and threatened with being thrown into the street should they complain.
The sheer vulnerability of these workers led to an important concession in 1998 when the then Labour government, with cross party support, agreed that these workers were not to be tied to an individual employer but could leave an abusive workplace and find similar work elsewhere. It provided them with an important escape route which some 23 years later the present government intends to close down.
The Government has announced that it intends to end the Overseas Domestic Workers visa and replace it with an much more restrictive scheme which will limit such workers to those employed by migrants who are in the UK on a visitors permit which is valid for no more than six months – ODWs will therefore also be limited to six month stays. Vitally their right to change employer will be removed. The logic of the Government seems to be, okay maybe they will be abused but it will now only be for six months on UK soil! In what other circumstances are we told that abuse and downright criminal action is acceptable as long as it only goes on for six months?
The Government may object that by way of recompense they intend to strengthen the ‘pre-entry measures to ensure that domestic workers and their employers understand their respective rights and responsibilities’. Including agreed written terms of employment. It would be a more powerful argument if the UK Government was not one of only nine governments in the world who failed to adopt the new ILO convention 189 on Domestic Workers. A convention which is aimed at addressing the particular problems that domestic workers face and ensure an inspection regime is in place to help enforce these rights.
The TUC would urge the Government to think again on Overseas Domestic Workers and while they are at it, also look at Convention 189. Or are they purely concerned with the wishes of those upstairs?