A wound that shames our present

In proposing to remove the most basic safeguards for migrant domestic workers, Jenny Moss asks whether the UK government has forgotten some of the most basic principles of justice which we as a country claim to espouse
Jenny Moss
21 June 2011

On the 9 June 2011, the British government released new proposals which threaten to put migrant domestic workers back into bonded labour and slavery in the UK. Ironically, this occurred at the same time as the world gathered at the UN in Geneva to agree a historic International Labour Organisation Convention, which was voted in by almost all governments involved, and sets out much needed improved standards of protection for domestic workers.

These proposals also come as the Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith launched a Centre for Social Justice "Slavery Review" saying slavery was a "wound that shames our present", adding: " Nothing else strikes at the heart of social justice so aggressively as modern-day human trafficking and enslavement".

We should condemn the Government's new proposals, which would make already vulnerable workers more likely to be exploited in the UK, and fly in the face of international consensus around the need to protect this group. Beyond this, we should take a long, hard look at the basic principles that are being sacrificed in the name of achieving political goals on immigration control.

During the past three weeks, governments and representatives of both workers and employers from over 180 different countries have come together for the sole purpose of achieving an international standard that will increase protection for some of the most vulnerable workers in the world. They did so in recognition of the vulnerability of domestic workers to exploitation and abuse.

It is a bitter irony then that just a day before agreement on the entire text of the Convention and Recommendation was reached, the UK government proposed to remove the most basic safeguards for migrant domestic workers in the UK, proposing a return to a system of bonded labour widely condemned by international and UK experts as facilitating forced labour and trafficking. The government has proposed either to close the domestic worker route to the UK altogether, or to create a visa that is effectively tied to the employer because it will be non-renewable after 6-12 months.

Domestic work is peculiar in that it is performed in the private home - which is a massively under-regulated working environment. Even in the UK where we do not distinguish between sectors of the work force in our basic employment regulations, there are carve outs and exemptions for the private home. Working time regulations, health and safety inspections and even the national minimum wage all have exceptions. Migrant domestic workers are particularly isolated: they have no co-workers to go to for support or advice, and they are often extremely dependent on their employer - relying on them for their work, their accommodation and their immigration status, not to mention any information about their rights in the UK. It is perhaps not surprising then, that trafficking for domestic servitude is a significant problem in the UK and around the world.

The migrant domestic worker visa was introduced in 1998 in recognition of the vulnerability of migrant domestic workers to abuse, exploitation, and though at that time the terminology was not used; trafficking for forced labour. Prior to this the UK had always allowed employers to bring domestic workers with them, but had provided no visa status or corresponding rights to domestic workers. The outcome was that year after year stories of horrific abuse at the hands of unscrupulous employers were exposed, and migrant domestic workers became illegal and were forced to go underground after fleeing an employer because they had to repay debts and support their families. In 1998 this changed – an independent visa was created to tackle the problem of abuse, giving migrant domestic workers some bargaining power by allowing them to change their employer.

This was an example of progressive policy making on immigration that works.The evidence shows that 94% of domestic workers come with their employer for only a short time and then leave again. For those few who experience mistreatment, the right to change employer and the associated ability to pursue their rights through the employment or criminal courts is invaluable. Kalayaan hears reports from migrant domestic workers and concerned members of the public about some of the most degrading working conditions persisting in the UK today with women sleeping on the floor, working on call through the night and day, with no day off and very little pay, sometimes being denied food or being physically, emotionally or even sexually abused.

Of course, the visa doesn’t fit well with the points based system introduced by the previous government as it allows for what has been termed ‘low skilled migration’ from outside the EU. The previous government proposed to alter the visa in a similar way to what is now being proposed, but backed down in the face of overwhelming evidence that the visa successfully worked to protect migrant domestic workers from slavery, and allowed them to escape abuse without relying on government support.

Leaving aside the issue of whether or not domestic work is skilled, experts from the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, the USA trafficking in persons report and the Office of the Special Representative on Trafficking at the OSCE, have all stated that restrictive immigration regimes increase the likelihood of forced labour and slavery. Allowing employers to bring their domestic staff to the UK but restricting the rights of those workers so they have no bargaining power and no escape route can only lead to an increase in forced labour amongst this group. This was recognised by the UK Home Affairs select committee in their 2008 inquiry on trafficking which concluded that ”to retain the migrant domestic worker visa and the protection it offers to workers is the single most important issue in preventing the forced labour and trafficking of such workers".

Removing the visa altogether is in line with a government trying to achieve its policy aims, but it is based on two premises that are ultimately flawed. The first is the assumption that if you remove a visa route, wealthy and powerful employers with massive interests in the UK will simply obey these rules. Unfortunately, evidence shows that they won’t. Already, in spite of the existing route to bring domestic workers to the UK, powerful employers choose to bring them on visit visas, false passports, or as family members. At Kalayaan we have had worrying cases reported to us where the British Embassy concerned was complicit in issuing visit visas, in spite of knowing the domestic workers were coming to the UK to work for their employer; this much is noted on the visa application file. The most likely consequence of removing the visa will be that more domestic workers will be brought here to work unlawfully, and that there will be an associated increase in trafficking and forced labour of these workers. Moreover when the situation becomes so unbearable that these workers find an opportunity to escape, they will not be able to move on, get new work to support themselves and remain visible in the UK. Instead they will be reliant on costly, tax payer funded accommodation and support, and removal to their countries of origin, as part of a system which has been widely condemned by ngos working for victims’ rights.

The second flawed assumption is that removing the visa might in some way contribute to reducing net migration. On the contrary, the proposal is unlikely to have any effect on net migration. Approximately 15,000 migrant domestic workers enter the UK each year but the UK Border Agency's own figures show that 94% of them leave again within six months and would therefore not be counted as net migrants. So whilst the government may hope to achieve some positive headlines through these proposals, it must already be aware that they will certainly not achieve their stated aims. What it might achieve is some administrative purity over the issue of low skilled migration from outside the EU, but this is not a public priority, whereas net migration is, and any attempt to conflate the two and use this proposal as a way to pull the wool over the public’s eyes would be extremely distasteful given the human consequences involved.

In trying to show that it is achieving its policy aspirations, the government appears to have forgotten some of the most basic principles which we, as a country claim to espouse. We have a long history with slavery and the fight for its abolition, which we should not forget. The discussions in the UN last week were about the right to a day off, the right to a contract and to be free from violence: these and the right to change ones employer are the most basic and fundamental protections that no one should be denied. Quite apart from issues of morality and social justice, the government ought to examine these new proposals in the context of other governments commitments. Removing the rights of domestic workers will only hinder its ability to suppress trafficking in human beings and may in fact facilitate it. In terms of promoting international development, the government should remember the contribution that the remittances of migrant domestic workers make to lifting the next generation of the developing world out of poverty and giving them better life chances and education.

Immigration is a thorny issue and of course migrant voices are least often heard. What we must not do is make policy in a vacuum. Sometimes it is necessarily to eschew administrative purity, and to take the brave decision to explain to the public that policy decisions that make sense do not necessarily make good headlines. Ultimately let us not sacrifice our most fundamental principles of justice in the quest to improve immigration control.


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