Legal moves to protect migrant domestic workers
The much anticipated Modern Slavery Bill is entering its final phases, with Report Stage in the Lords scheduled for next Wednesday, 25 February. However, unless the Amendment tabled by crossbencher Lord Hylton, Labour’s Baroness Royall, Conservative Baroness Hanham and the Bishop of Carlisle is passed, the UK’s legislation will continue failing to protect one particularly vulnerable group: migrant domestic workers.
These workers are usually women who migrate to the UK with a named employer to work in that employer’s private home. Their workplace is unregulated and hidden and they depend on their employer for all information about the UK as well as for work and accommodation. They are also especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by employers who do not want to pay them, keep their passports, expect them to sleep in the kitchen or on the floor of the children’s room, do not allow them to contact their families and give them little or no time off.
Radio 4’s Face the Facts, aired on Thursday, examined the situation of migrant domestic workers in the UK, as well as recruits to the fishing industry, and how legislation has failed to provide these workers with the most basic of rights or protections.
At present migrant domestic workers enter the UK on a 6-month visa with a named employer. The employer’s name is usually written on the visa. They cannot change employer or apply to renew their visa. They are expected to leave the UK at the end of six months. It is not surprising that in April 2014 the Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill found that these changes to the immigration rules, introduced in April 2012 ‘strengthened the hand of the slave master against the victim of slavery’. The Committee found that ‘the moral case for revisiting this issue is urgent and overwhelming’ and called on the Government to take immediate action.
Today, in response to the BBC investigation, modern slavery minister Karen Bradley has said:
“We do know that there are problems; that’s why I’ve just commissioned an independent review of the visa arrangements for overseas domestic workers.”
This makes no sense. If we know there are problems with people being enslaved, and this has been confirmed by two parliamentary inquiries, we need to act, not review. Migrant domestic workers need protecting now and the Modern Slavery Bill should address this.
The proposed Amendment would implement only the most basic rights of migrant domestic workers, that of changing employers (within the domestic work sector only) and applying to renew their visa if in full time employment. For those found to have been a victim of modern slavery there would be a 3-month temporary visa allowing them to look for decent work. It is shocking that the UK, a country aiming to be a world leader in combating modern slavery and trafficking, could turn down this Amendment and pass a Modern Slavery Bill which leaves a particularly vulnerable group of workers without these most basic rights, allowing them to negotiate with an employer and to ultimately resign from their job if treated unreasonably.
This could have been achieved with a simple change to the immigration rules to reinstate the original Overseas Domestic Worker visa, introduced in 1998 in response to high levels of exploitation, which recognised domestic workers as workers and allowed them to change employer. However domestic workers have now been tied to their employers for almost 3 years. The proposed Amendment is not much to ask for and is the minimum protection these workers need.
The Government have clearly stated aims to tackle modern slavery in the UK. Domestic servitude is a form of slavery. Allowing basic rights to domestic workers would do much to address the worst of abuses. We have to hope that we won’t get a Modern Slavery Act which ignores the servitude of those who are hidden working in their employer’s homes.