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Justice for domestic workers: it’s about rights, not protection

Britain’s drive to limit migration has removed many of the rights migrant domestic workers once had in the UK. Could collective organising help bring them back?

Charles Hutchins/Flickr. CC (by-nc-nd)

Penelope: Could you tell me a little bit about the work you do at Justice for Domestic Workers UK (J4DW)?

Marissa: Every Sunday, we offer English language and computer classes. We also have a body, mind and wellness workshop to help domestic workers recover from the trauma resulting from abusive employment situations. We also have livelihood training workshops to give people additional skills and knowledge to fall back on if they choose to leave the care industry. Many domestic workers get arrested and deported, so these business skills could be helpful if they have to go back home all of a sudden and build a new future. Some domestic workers might simply want to retire and others want to run a business alongside their domestic work profession.


'Domestic workers speak: a global fight for rights and recognition' showcases the diversity and power of the domestic workers' rights movement. Featuring contributions from 23 worker-led groups, it details the struggle of domestic workers, explores their solidarity and methods of resistance, and calls for comprehensive rights for the world's most invisible workforce.
Free PDF download

We also offer sessions about our campaigns for domestic workers rights, where we invite people to come give us updates on their situation in the UK, especially in terms of immigration. We also have Doctors of the World coming in every second Sunday of the month to help domestic workers access medical care. It is quite difficult for undocumented domestic workers to access medical care, especially nowadays since the Home Office is checking NHS records with the intention of arresting and deporting undocumented workers.

We sometimes invite agencies to come train domestic workers for job interviews and our IT classes help them write their own CVs. Unite the Union also provides union courses on employment rights to help domestic workers fight their own cases outside tribunal court. To avoid paying for court fees, we try as much as possible to settle employment cases.

We also rescue and provide shelter for domestic workers. We give them a travel allowance during transitional periods to help them find another job, so they can continue to support their families. This allowance also gives them the time to recover while reducing financial stress. During that time, we can start to empower them with all the services we provide.

Besides these services, the main focus of our work is to campaign for policy changes to improve the work and living conditions of domestic workers.

Penelope: How does J4DW get funded to offer all these programmes and services?

Marissa: Unfortunately we don't have much funding at the moment. We receive some money for a part-time coordinator and to pay taxes. The rest comes from public speaking honorariums and donations. During the summer, we also do fundraising trips with our members.

Penelope: How many members belong to this organisation?

Marissa: We have more than 1000 members.

Penelope: Are most members domestic workers themselves?

Marissa: J4DW is led by migrant domestic workers. Six of them serve as board directors and five are non-domestic workers with different profession backgrounds. Their role is to guide and manage J4DW. We have at least 20 active domestic workers in working groups that manage day-to-day activities.

We are very fortunate to be supported by Unite the Union, and not only in our campaigns: they provide us with the space every Sunday for free and they take care of most of our needs, like printing and making campaign t-shirts.

Penelope: How did J4DW start?

Marissa: A few years ago, there was a group of undocumented domestic worker activists called Waling Waling, way back when domestic workers had no rights at all in the UK. In 1997–1998, along with Kalayaan and Unite the Union, they won their first campaign for the right to change employer; the right to renew their visa every year; and the right to indefinite leave to remain (ILR) after five years of continuous active work, and the right to British citizenship one year after being granted ILR. In 2008, the government threatened to retract these rights, so we organised with Unite the Union, Waling Waling, Margaret Healey, and Father Aodh (the co-founders of Kalayaan, who also helped establish J4DW.)

We were eight domestic workers in the beginning: four from Waling Waling and four under new domestic worker visas. We grew very quickly and started attending conferences like the Labour Conference in 2009. By then, we were already established. The same year, we attended the Global Forum on Migration and Development and the following year, we attended a discussion at the UN in Geneva around the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention (C189). In 2011, it was passed, and J4DW spoke to represent trade union working groups. Then we attended a high level dialogue in New York.

Why do we need to be raped, beaten, or starved to death in order to access protection?

Unfortunately, in 2012, we lost all these rights for domestic workers arriving in the UK from the 6 April onwards. An amendment to the 2015 Modern Slavery Act gave us back the right to change employer, but we did not regain the right to renew our visas every year. Domestic workers have visas that are valid for six months from the day their employer brings them in. Within these six months, they can change employer, but they cannot renew their visa after this time period, which means they inevitably become undocumented.

Even if they manage to run away from an abusive employer, no one is willing to hire them for one to three months, especially since many families want long-term relationships with their domestic workers for taking care of their children and the elderly.

Penelope: So what happened in 2012 exactly?

Marissa: This was during an attempt by the UK government to control migration, and domestic workers were included in these restrictions. They completely disregarded the vulnerability of migrant domestic workers, who are the most vulnerable and therefore require the most protection. Prior to these changes, migrant domestic workers fell under a special category outside the point based-system in terms of their visas, giving them access to legal rights and protection.

In 2012, however, the government said that the trafficking law was enough to protect domestic workers, but why do we need to be raped, beaten, or starved to death in order to access protection?

Penelope: So right now, the only legal recourses for domestic workers in the UK fall under this trafficking law?

Marissa: Yes, so domestic workers can access protection under this law if they are being abused, the kinds of horrible abuses I mentioned: rape, sexual harassment (although sexual harassment is difficult to prove), physical abuse, or starvation – which is in fact very common for domestic workers.

But the question is, do we really have to suffer from such horrible exploitation and abuse to access protection? Shouldn’t we be entitled to proper wages, not having our passports withheld by our employers, days off or rest periods, and decent working hours?

The way to protect domestic workers is to give them access to workers rights, because we are workers and no one can argue with that. Without these rights, how could we possibly have any escape route when we are being abused? Especially now that domestic workers can no longer access healthcare. How could they claim their rights or access the court when they become undocumented?

How do the authorities expect us to trust them and report abuses if they give runaway domestic workers’ numbers to their abusive employers?

We had an experience recently where an employer reported their domestic worker missing. This domestic worker actually ran away and came to us. I contacted her employer to tell them that she ran away and that she didn’t want to work for them anymore. I also called the police to let them know that she was safe and that she was not returning to her employer. I asked the domestic worker to call the police herself to let them know that she ran away because she was being abused. The police asked us to come down to the station, where they interrogated us for an hour, and then we found out that the police had given her number to her former employer.

How do the authorities expect us to trust them and report abuses if they give runaway domestic workers’ numbers to their abusive employers? As for myself, I don't think I will cooperate with the police again after this experience.

When a domestic worker calls us, we try as much as possible to be clear about what she will have to face if she chooses to run away. We explain that they will become undocumented, and therefore become even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. It's very hard for us to give them advice when we know that they are being abused and we know that even after having escaped abusive employment situations, they will likely continue to be trapped in this abusive system.

Penelope: So from what I understand, you have experience with domestic work yourself? What is your specific role in J4DW?

Marissa: Yes I am still a full-time domestic worker and a community organiser and coordinator of J4DW.

It is not very easy to balance both things. The last 10 years were ok because I had a very supportive employer. I was only looking after one child, who was at school most of the time, so I had time to do some work for J4DW. My employer even allowed me to travel for two weeks for the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention and didn’t even deduct my salary for those two weeks.

Now that employer’s child is grown up and goes to boarding school, so they only needed me part time. I can’t survive on a part-time salary, so I had to find another job. My new job is very tough, as I am looking after three children, which makes it difficult for me to balance work and organising. My current employers understand if I need to leave sometimes to do work for J4DW, but it’s not easy to get away because of the three children and the general housework. I couldn't talk to you during work hours, for example, because I had a baby with me. I can't always ask them, “can I go to the parliament? Can I go to a meeting?” I know they would let me, but I also have to look at the family’s needs.

But also because we are empowering domestic workers, I could delegate work to other members of J4DW. It is really important for us that our employers support the work we do for J4DW, that is how we survive.

Penelope: What about your work with J4DW has made you the most proud?

Marissa: This is my life, and I am always ready to sacrifice everything I have financially and my time. Even if I don't sleep anymore, I still do it. People ask: “How do you do it?” and I answer that it is not that hard, because I do it with my heart. It is something that gives me life.

I feel especially proud and happy when I see a domestic worker that has escaped from very abusive employment able to stand up, rebuild her life, and speak in public at the parliament. It makes me proud because I see myself: I also came from very abusive employment conditions – so many abuses and sexual harassment – and I managed to get out and rebuild my life, and do more for my fellow domestic workers. Seeing my fellow domestic workers do the same is really what makes me happy, so its worth every sacrifice, and I think that’s what J4DW is really about; It’s about life, family, workers, society, community, and solidarity.

About the authors

Marissa Begonia is coordinator of Justice 4 Domestic Workers, having previously served as chairperson of the organisation between 2009 - 2012. She graduated in computer science in Hong Kong and is the proud mother of three children. 

Penelope Kyritsis is an assistant managing editor for Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. She holds a BA in Postcolonial Legal Studies from Brown University. Follow Penelope on Twitter @_penelopeCK.


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