Human Luggage: lives of neo-bondage and servitude

New immigration rules in the UK enforce the power of abusive employers over migrant domestic workers. It is a lack of respect for human dignity that will tear apart the fabric of our society, not migration, says Jenny Moss

Banner on floor with people gathered around decorating it with hand-prints and slogans Domestic workers at Kalayaan paint banners to protest against visa changes
that would remove their right to change employer.

Mary Wollstonecraft said of having to work as a governess that “few are the modes of subsistence, and those are very humiliating...”  She talked of living with strangers who are “so intolerably tyrannical...” and “having to wear a cheerful face or be dismissed”. She felt that “[t]he being dependent on the caprice of a fellow-creature... is yet a very bitter corrective.”

Whilst this isn’t an entirely fair description of domestic work – certainly for instance not all employers are tyrannical by any means - what is really accurately described is the power relationship that means domestic workers find themselves dependent on the whim of their employer.  If the employer is good to them – great.  If the employer treats them badly there simply is no protection available.  This is particularly the case for migrant domestic workers  for whom the state, rather than providing protection from the vagaries of employers’ whims, actively enforces the power and control that employers have through immigration restrictions.  In the 1980s and 1990s the UK tied the residence permits of domestic workers to their working for a named employer.  In 1998 this changed and the UK allowed domestic workers to change employer thus handing them back a little control, although unscrupulous employers still used migrant domestic workers reliance on them for accommodation and immigration status as a method to extract longer hours for less pay.  Today the situation is worse again.  The Government changed the rules this April  to remove the most important protection available to domestic workers – their freedom to withdraw their labour and work for someone else.

Whereas in recent years domestic workers have been able to flee abuse and find new work to support themselves and their families now domestic workers who escape exploitation find themselves destitute, homeless, reliant on strangers for support and with no way of earning money to support their families. They can no longer change employer, renew their visa or apply for settlement after 5 years.

Once again, like in the 80s and 90s, the UK is allowing wealthy employers to bring their domestic staff to the UK but is unwilling to get involved with the unappetising business of trying to ensure these employers treat these domestic workers in accordance with the law.  The UK has left domestic workers high and dry, dependent on the caprice of their employer.  As a member of the House of Lords characterised the situation back in the early 1990s when similar rules applied, domestic workers are seen simply as part of the employer’s luggage.

In fact the state is doing more than simply ‘keeping out of things’, the removal of domestic workers’ right to change employer actively increases the power employers have to control domestic workers. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery has described the situation we have returned to, where migrant domestic workers are not allowed to freely change employers, as one of ‘neo-bondage’ that encourages servitude.

It seems crazy that such dramatic consequences have been accepted as the price for reducing net migration by 0.5% (this is the amount domestic workers make up of the current net migration total – its approximately 1000 people per year).  Migrant domestic workers, it seems, have been the victims of a bureaucratic tidy up – the protections afforded to them allowed for the possibility of low skilled migration to the UK – all be it a very small amount.  Part of the problem seems to have been that rather than working out what policies on migration would be sensible and working from there, headline grabbing and populist ideological promises to reduce net migration were made before anyone considered what the implications of such promises would be. 

Large room packed full of people. Understanding the visa changes proposed by the coalition:
domestic workers at a public meeting in July 2011

In any case, regardless of how or why we got here, this is where we find ourselves. At Kalayaan we have started to see the effects of the new immigration rules.  Now when women (and some men) come to see us describing how they have fled an abusive employer there is a moment’s dread when we try to find out when this individual applied for entry clearance.  If it was before 6 April we breathe a sigh of relief and can go about our normal routine – find the person emergency housing with another domestic worker if they need it; help them understand their visa rights, get evidence of the visa from the embassy, help them get their passport back from their employer or report it stolen, find out if they want to take action against their employers through the police or the employment courts, and ultimately help them into new employment where they regain their independence and send money back to their families.

If the domestic worker is on a new style visa the picture is bleak.  We explain that they can’t work for anyone else but that there are organisations that will help them go home.  We can’t find people housing in the community because there is little or no realistic prospect of the recently escaped domestic worker being able to move on and it would not be fair to ask a domestic worker, no doubt not far from precarity herself, to take on the responsibility of looking after someone in this situation.  Some new domestic workers will fit the Government’s criteria for trafficked person and will probably have to accept a referral into the Government system for trafficked people in order to get safe accommodation. In terms of domestic workers who are not trafficked but have no housing we are right now simply on a wing and a prayer.

To date we have seen 20 domestic workers on new style visas - mainly women. Our advice to them is you can’t work, you need to go home. Only one person has indicated that they will go home.  A handful are applying for asylum on the basis that if they are returned they would likely be re-trafficked into domestic servitude, one is going through the national referral mechanism for victims of trafficking.  Most are fairly clear that they don’t see that they have any choice, if they return to their home countries they have no way of earning money, they have to work, their children are relying on them.  We advise people of the law and of the risks.

It’s hard not to worry about these individuals who are extremely vulnerable to being further exploited and abused by people who prey on them because of their status. Already we see the results – people ending up in bad jobs and bad relationships.

Our other concern is for people who have not yet fled an employer - if they know they cannot work elsewhere will they continue to suffer abuse and exploitation rather than flee into destitution and illegality?  It is difficult to say whether this is the case or not as by the nature of the situation we are unlikely to meet those individuals who do not flee.  Anecdotally there is some evidence on both sides – I am assisting one domestic worker who fled even after having learned from us that she would be unable to work elsewhere but in another case a domestic worker having returned to abusive and exploitative employment after having fled, telling us he’d have to tell the employer he got lost going out to get milk, because he simply cannot afford not to work – no matter how poorly he is treated.

A street full of people with banners such as: tied to employers equals trafficking and slavery May day 2007: Domestic workers and Kalayaan at a rally protesting
against proposed visa changes

Kalayaan will continue to work with migrant domestic workers to challenge these rules that de-humanise them and create this vulnerability to the tyranny of an employer. In the current climate this is clearly going to be something of an uphill struggle.  As I’ve already said, migrant domestic workers made up a tiny fraction of the long term migrants to the UK each year but it seems that everywhere anxiety about migration triumphs over sensible policy making that could create the conditions for respectful employment practices. We are led to believe that it is not a lack of respect for human dignity or a state that supports the right of the rich to treat their workers howsoever they choose that will tear apart the fabric of our society – no, the real culprit is migration.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote also about slavery.  In the late 18th Century before Britain outlawed the slave trade she criticised a backward looking elite who tried to instil anxiety in the British public that abolishing slavery would somehow lead to a collapse in the institution of private property.

“We are to submit to the inhuman custom [slave traffic] and term an atrocious insult to humanity the love of our country and a proper submission to the laws by which our property is secured… And to this selfish principle every nobler one is sacrificed.” (Wollstonecraft, 1790)

Private property needless to say, did not collapse (and empire took a long time to die out after the slave trade was abolished).  Affording migrant domestic workers the right to change employer in order to escape abuse and free themselves from slavery like conditions is not only a noble principle, it just makes good common sense – no one wants to live in a society where slavery flourishes.  But our obsession with protecting our way of life now centres on our borders, and we are now asked to submit to the inhuman custom of the traffic in female slaves for the goal of protecting these borders.

This article is part of a series of articles published in the run up to the International Herald tribune/Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust Women Conference December 4th-5th, London.

 

 

 

 

About the author

Jenny Moss works as a community advocate at Kalayaan