I’m sitting in central Beirut with two migrant domestic workers, listening to Sara tell a story about freshly baked croissants. Her colleague Rose and I are doubled up with laughter, tears rolling down our cheeks. Both women are experienced activists campaigning for domestic workers’ rights in Lebanon, where the kafala (sponsorship) system ties workers’ visas to specific employers, creating conditions conducive to abuse.
Sara’s story takes place against this backdrop, but focuses on an act of defiance in the face of overwork and wage theft. She describes the derision she faced from her employer, who demanded receipts and counted the pennies every time she sent Sara out to buy breakfast. One day Sara saved some money from her salary and brought her own fresh croissants back from the bakery, deliberately relishing them one by one in front of her employer. “Me too, I have the right to eat croissants!” she cried in the woman’s face.
Though the right to croissants may sound like a minor example, Sara’s bold display pushed back against the normalisation of subservience so rife within domestic employment, and laid the groundwork for her other negotiations over working hours and payment. Media portrayals of migrant domestic workers rarely tell us about their everyday victories, their witty defiance of employers’ disrespect, or the sisterhood and joy that comes with organising as activists. This does not mean, of course, that severe abuse does not occur. Sara and Rose are acutely aware that, on average, two domestic workers die each week in Lebanon, many falling from balconies in what have been officially recorded as suicides. But when narratives about domestic workers only focus on extreme cases of abuse, they risk overlooking the routine forms of mistreatment many experience, and the canny and even comical ways they regularly fight back.
One of the most pressing problems domestic workers highlight is the role of governments in stacking the deck against them.
For the last two years I have joined migrant domestic workers at protests, meetings, community gatherings, and karaoke bars to learn about the everyday realities of working in private houses, far from home. As part of my research, workers such as Sara and Rose have collaborated on editing soundwalks that take listeners to places where they can hear workers’ own voices through their headphones. Their stories complicate the simplistic narratives of victimhood and vulnerability which are too often applied to domestic workers. Accounts of abuse and escape are paired with sharp critique of immigration law and labour export policy. Vivid memories of loved ones sit alongside discussions of faith, music, and sexuality.
This range underscores the need for a more nuanced perspective, where migrant domestic workers appear – first and foremost – as experts who negotiate, defy, and survive the conditions of migration and undervalued labour. Their expertise is expressed both through everyday acts like Sara’s croissants and organised activism on an international scale. Domestic work involves far more than unfair relationships between cruel employers and vulnerable workers. One of the most pressing problems domestic workers highlight is the role of governments in stacking the deck against them.
Governments lay the groundwork for abuse
In the United Kingdom, the grassroots organisation The Voice of Domestic Workers is currently coordinating a campaign to overturn the tied visa system introduced by the Conservative government in 2012. Like kafala, this system links workers’ immigration status to particular employers in what has been described as a “chattel visa”. It makes it next to impossible for workers to demand fair treatment without risking their migration status. In a petition and briefing to the UK parliament, campaigners argue that the UK will have failed to live up to its high-profile commitments to end modern slavery unless there is a return to the pre-2012 visa.
The negative consequences of the 2012 change to visa rules were entirely predictable. When workers can’t change employers legally they are left at the mercy of their current employer. More than half of domestic workers in the UK experience verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, with many more working overtime for far less than the minimum wage. Those who attempt to escape these conditions are caught within the inequities of the immigration system.
This is captured in Amara’s soundwalk we are workers. She took me to Piccadilly Circus to record it, where she slept rough after she escaped abusive employers and found herself homeless and undocumented in London. “I thought I was finally free when I managed to escape,” she said. But then she waited for almost three years before the UK Home Office acknowledged her as a ‘victim of trafficking’ and granted her temporary leave to remain. During that time she had no right to work and received just £5 per day allowance – not enough to survive in London, let alone to help support her three children in the Philippines.
Domestic workers are unable to gain protection until their employment situation has deteriorated to the point of enslavement – at which point they must take a leap of faith that their stories will be believed.
Amara is critical of the national referral mechanism (NRM), the screening process through which victims of modern slavery and trafficking are identified. She described how hard it is to provide evidence of abuse that happens “behind closed doors”. Moreover, the victim status imposed on domestic workers by the system doesn’t reflect their self-perceptions. “We don’t want to be treated like victims of trafficking, because we are workers,” Amara said. “We didn’t leave our family to depend on the government here, or any support from any organisation.”
The ‘modern slavery’ label is a double-edged sword. It holds out the prospect of legal relief in extreme cases, yet does so by shifting the focus from labour rights to criminal justice and border control. This in turn points the finger at malicious perpetrators and helpless victims, rather than addressing systemic exploitation. As Amara pointed out, domestic workers are caught in a ‘victim or villain’ rhetoric backed by the power of legislation. They are unable to gain protections via the NRM until their employment situation has deteriorated to the point of enslavement – at which point they must take a leap of faith that their stories will be believed. But if their abuse is not considered extreme enough to merit protection, if they become undocumented, or if they are forced to work without papers to avoid destitution, they must either leave the UK or be treated as criminals.
Dignity and protection as workers
To challenge exploitation before their situation deteriorates, domestic workers need meaningful legal rights. Restoring the pre-2012 visa would give some security to workers, and the current campaign to restore it is a vital first step. However, even the pre-2012 regime would still leave workers with no recourse to public funds and no right to switch employment sector, making it harder to find decent employment – especially in a post-coronavirus UK in which domestic work is harder to find. In June, a UK survey of precarious Filipino migrants (89% of them domestic and care workers) showed that over half had lost all their work and income since the coronavirus outbreak, with one in five homeless. The ILO estimates that the livelihoods of 55 million domestic workers worldwide are similarly at risk.
Like Sara and Rose in Lebanon – and others around the world, from South Africa to India to Trinidad and Tobago – domestic workers in the UK are not looking for victim status but workers’ rights. They want to see systemic change, implemented through legislation. This must go hand in hand with cultural perceptions that recognise domestic workers as experts. Focusing on suffering at the expense of struggle and sisterhood is only telling part of the story.
Want to help protect domestic workers in the UK? Sign the petition from The Voice of Domestic Workers.