Life on a knife edge: migrant domestic workers in the UK

At what point do the rights of migrant domestic workers as human beings and as workers start to take precedence over their status as migrants?

Jenny Moss
17 March 2010
People on the Move logo and link

London is a global city. Behind the bright lights in the city and in our hospitals all over the UK work thousands of highly skilled migrants. Across the political spectrum it seems to be agreed that these are the kind of migrants the UK should welcome with open arms.

People on the Move logo and link

London is a global city. Behind the bright lights in the city and in our hospitals all over the UK work thousands of highly skilled migrants. Across the political spectrum it seems to be agreed that these are the kind of migrants the UK should welcome with open arms. Migrant domestic workers are a far less lauded group of migrants who are perceived as doing 'low skilled' work, but these women look after the young children and the elderly relatives of an elite group of migrants who bring their domestic staff with them  - busy doctors, bankers and diplomats - allowing them to go out and do the highly skilled work they came here for.

British people also employ migrant domestic workers. Whilst buying in domestic work is by no means necessarily exploitative, being a migrant will always make you vulnerable. Your immigration status is vital to your survival, and above all else you are viewed as a migrant. This idea is reinforced across British society. Our anxiety about people accessing services they are not entitled to can mean that when a migrant goes to the police they are at times treated first and foremost as a potential immigration offender, and it is only once the police are clear that there is a valid visa that the issue of being a victim of crime is addressed. In doctor’s surgeries overzealous receptionists are turning away people who have a right to access the NHS, because they are instructed to enforce immigration rules and are not properly trained to do so. I was told by one migrant domestic worker that she had been refused an account by a bank on the basis that she had ‘no recourse to public funds’.

The position of migrant domestic workers as migrants in an unregulated job, where they are dependent on their employer for work and accommodation, makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and sometimes trafficking. Migrant domestic workers are often misled by unscrupulous employers to believe that their visa status is tied to that employer alone, and that if they leave they will be arrested and deported. One woman, who came to see me at Kalayaan had waited six years before becoming so desperate that she had escaped. Except for a couple of one-off payments, she had been paid no salary for that time, she’d been physically assaulted and treated like a slave, down to being told to eat off separate plates because she would pollute those of the family. Why do migrant domestic workers believe their employers when they mislead them about their immigration status? Because every encounter they have tells them that their status  as a migrant is more important than their rights as a human being or a worker.

The situation in the UK is not however as depressing as it might sound. The UK has made some very progressive steps to protect migrant domestic workers. It took ten long years of campaigning by Kalayaan, the unions, and most importantly by migrant domestic workers themselves, many of them undocumented after having fled an abusive employer, but the UK did act. In the face of overwhelming evidence that migrant domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse, the UK government created a visa status for migrant domestic workers independent of their employer.

This independence from an employer is extremely significant. It means that if a migrant domestic worker is abused or exploited and she runs away, she is able to approach the police without fear, or go to the employment courts to enforce her rights to be paid a proper salary.  Crucially, she can secure a new job and continue to send money home to support her family, and pay off the debts she may have incurred migrating in the first place. Of course it is more complicated than this because migrant domestic workers must first be informed of their rights in order to claim them, but it is a significant achievement nonetheless.

This arrangement of specific visa protection works for the UK, it allows wealthy and highly skilled foreign nationals to bring their existing staff to the UK, who then sometimes go on to work for British families who are looking for nannies and elder carers. Importantly, for the politicians at least, this arrangement has not increased migration of this kind to the UK. The number of domestic worker visas issued has actually fallen year on year, and most migrant domestic workers return to their employers' home countries when their employers' visits or work here comes to an end. At the same time as caring for the next generation of British achievers, migrant domestic workers, who often have no formal education themselves, are helping to develop their own countries, sending money home to put their children through schools and universities.

In spite of the introduction of the special visa status that protects migrant domestic workers from the worst kinds of exploitation, and the work that government departments are doing with Kalayaan around the National Minimum Wage, migrant domestic workers can never escape the fact that they are migrants, and that this matters above all else. Even for those who have relatively good jobs for three to four months a year, they lose all negotiating power whilst their visa renewal (which requires the support of an employer) is processed by the Home Office, they cannot afford to jeopardise their status by trying to enforce working rights that the rest of us take for granted. Whilst someone’s visa is being processed, they also essentially lose all rights to a family life.  If a parent dies, or a child becomes sick, they cannot return to their countries to visit because if they ask for their passport back, their visa application is cancelled and they cannot then return to the UK to continue their work. They have to make the choice between their families needs in the short term versus supporting them in the longer term. This tension is poignantly described by a domestic worker, who is a member of the union affiliated group “Justice 4 domestic workers” in her testimony Cry of a migrant which could have been written by any of the 16,000 women migrant domestic workers who enter the UK each year. But how rarely we ask them or hear their voices.

Migrant domestic workers sacrifice their right to be mothers. Whilst most have children before they migrate, there are those who migrate when they are younger. These women cannot afford to get pregnant because if they lose their job through pregnancy, they lose their immigration status. It is of course unlawful to dismiss someone because they are pregnant, but how does a pregnant woman enforce her right to maternity leave in a private house? Even if she can get compensation for wrongful dismissal, she is unlikely to get her job back and she will therefore lose her immigration status.

A migrant life can be one lived on a knife edge. Migrant domestic workers, Kalayaan and other supporters won a campaign in 2008 to maintain the vital rights of the domestic worker visa, most importantly the right to change employer and the right to be recognised as a worker under UK employment law (these had previously been won in 1998 but were under threat). Before we’d had a chance to catch our breath and celebrate, the government was discussing “active” and “earned” citizenship - the new plans to make migrants who have worked and contributed to the UK for five years, work for a further three before they can get citizenship and access to public funds. Under this scheme migrants can speed up their journey to that point by volunteering, but for women who work a sixty hour week that is clearly unfeasible.

Migrant domestic workers don’t want to take money from the government. They want to work, but insisting that they cannot access social security funds which they have contributed to, means condemning them to that same knife edge existence. When should they be allowed access to the safety net? At what point do their rights as human beings and as workers start to take precedence over their status as migrants?

Migrant domestic workers are not afraid to work hard, it is by now a cliché that they work in jobs that most British people wouldn’t. They keep the children of our high achievers and highly skilled workers safe and cared for, and keep Britain running. They are educating their own children; creating a future for them and helping their own countries develop. The UK should be proud of its record of protecting migrant domestic workers, some of the most vulnerable people in society, but it remains the case that as a migrant, this is your only identity and one that affects every aspect of your life.  It will take a dramatic psychological shift across government, services, and the general public, for migrants to be respected first and foremost as human beings and people trying to provide for their families, rather than being viewed only as people existing outside their own nation state.

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