Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Two years on £38 a week: life inside the UK’s trafficking support system

Domestic workers inside the National Referral System at risk of new exploitation as they struggle to make ends meet

Jack Barton
16 June 2022, 6.00am

Domestic workers protest the UK's Nationality and Borders Bill


Alisdare Hickson/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-sa)

Catherine does not feel safe. She hasn’t since she came to the UK four years ago to work in the household of a wealthy, Middle Eastern family. And her experience with the government’s programme for survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery has done little to make that feeling go away.

Catherine entered the UK on the Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visa, which prohibits holders from changing employers or extending their stay if they leave their employer. These restrictions, which Theresa May put into place as home secretary in 2012, can and do trap domestic workers into abusive and exploitative employment.

For months, Catherine said, she was verbally abused, made to eat off the kitchen floor, and had her pay withheld. She worked constantly, without days off. Eventually a neighbour helped her to escape and find support from a charity. From there she turned to the government for help.

She entered the National Referral Mechanism, the UK’s system for recognising and supporting survivors of trafficking and modern slavery. But once inside the NRM she found that it offered little in the way of solutions. Catherine is not alone in this. Survivors and advocates who spoke to openDemocracy said domestic workers’ problems aren’t limited to the employers themselves. The government’s treatment of people seeking support, they said, puts them at further risk.

“They don't respect you,” Catherine said. “Your rights don't mean as much.”

First survive the abuse, then survive the NRM

The NRM is a two-stage process. Following a referral, the applicant receives a preliminary “reasonable grounds” decision regarding whether they are likely to be a victim of trafficking. A positive decision entitles them to basic support, including legal and psychological support, and a small subsistence payment of around £38 per week for as long as their case is open. They must then wait for a “conclusive grounds” decision, which, if positive, officially recognises that they have been trafficked.

In 2021, the average wait for this second decision was approximately 500-600 days.

Survivors and advocates both told openDemocracy that this long processing time puts people at risk of further exploitation. This is because it compels them to find new work to supplement their subsistence payments and meet their obligations to their families back home. Depending on their circumstances they may or may not be able to do this legally. But even when work is permitted, their legal limbo makes it difficult for them to find work under good conditions.

The criminal justice system is totally inappropriate for supporting victims.

As Catherine waited for her claim to be processed, she went through at least two more employers who took advantage of her precarity. “During Covid the father lost his job,” she said of one employer. “I needed to be paid, [but] when I talked to them about this [the mother] nearly crashed the car and was screaming at me asking why I was asking for so much money. I think it's because I don't have [a final decision]. In another place I worked for a family who also knew I didn't have the paperwork and … in the end they didn't pay my salary properly.”

Avril Sharp is a policy and casework officer at Kalayaan, a small charity supporting migrant domestic workers and a designated referral agency to the NRM. “Workers in the system designed to safeguard them are still being abused and exploited because of restrictions on their ability to work,” she said. “Subsistence payments are dangerously low – they haven't gone up at all despite the cost of living crisis. This isn't just domestic workers. It's all kinds of trafficking survivors who are forced to languish in limbo.”

She continued: “We know this, the government knows this. When you restrict access, entitlements and rights, it doesn’t prevent people from taking the risky options. If those are the only ones left to them, they'll take them.”

The perils of cooperation

On top of the limbo of waiting for a decision, applicants are encouraged to report their former employers to the police. This has the potential to further complicate their position without bringing them closer to justice.

"The criminal justice system is totally inappropriate for supporting victims,” Francesca Humi said. She works for the Kanlungan Filipino Consortium, a London-based charity working with Filipino, East and Southeast Asian migrants. “It just becomes a he-said-she-said, which is never going to take the side of the victim. But will bring the victim to the attention of the police and immigration enforcement.”

If you get the facts about what the NRM provides, I don’t know why you would put yourself through that.

This was the experience for Christina, who came to the UK on the ODW visa to work in the household of a diplomat. After giving testimony to the police as part of her NRM referral, Christina was told that because her employer worked in an embassy, the Home Office would decide whether or not to take further action. In the two years it took her to get a conclusive grounds decision, she had a claim for asylum rejected and was told she had to leave the UK, before later gaining recognition as a trafficking survivor and refugee.

“In your mind there's a lot of worries,” she said. “Is the Home Office going to send you back? What about your children if they do? I got depression worrying about it as I was going through the NRM. I was able to get counselling and I was on anti-depressants for three years. I still have anxiety about it. It's really hard.”

Both Christina and Catherine say they know people who have avoided going through the NRM. Some are worried about bringing themselves to the attention of the Home Office and police, while others believe the risk of their application failing is too high to be worth the risk.

“I have some friends who [are] too worried to apply to the referral mechanism,” Christina said. “They said ‘oh I'm not sure my case is strong enough’, so they decide to just go through [the abuse].”

Reform the reforms

Home Office data shows that, in 2021, 930 people were referred to support services as victims of trafficking for domestic servitude. This is a small proportion of total referrals to the NRM, but it has doubled since 2016. Testimony from survivors and caseworkers suggests that the proportion would grow further if the NRM offered a more viable and dignified route to security. “Workers have spoken for a long time now about what they need to stay safe,” Kalayaan’s Sharp said. “The NRM isn't a suitable process for them.”

Responding to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: “All potential and confirmed victims can access a wide range of specialist support, including safehouse accommodation, financial support to meet their essential living needs and assistance in accessing health care and legal aid. All potential and confirmed victims with a right to work in the UK are able to do so whilst they are receiving NRM support."

Kalayaan, Kanlungan, and other organisations such as the Filipino Domestic Workers Association (FDWA) argue that what’s on offer isn’t enough. To do what is best for survivors, they say, a domestic worker in the NRM should be able to access work with fair conditions and labour rights once they have a reasonable grounds decision. Right now they can only work for the remainder of the visa on which they entered the UK (the ODW visa lasts six months). With little or no time left in which they can legally work, many must accept exploitative work practices in order to continue generating income. This can make entering the NRM feel like an act of self-sabotage, and without reform it increasingly seems a bad option for people who are already desperate.

"I find myself having to advocate for a system that often isn’t really going to help clients, because that’s the only system that exists,” Humi said. “The last time we did a group advice session very few people came back to me and said, ‘yeah I want to go through the NRM’. Ultimately, if you get the facts about what it provides, I don’t know why you would put yourself through that.”

The names of survivors have been changed to protect anonymity.

If you are a migrant domestic worker who needs urgent support with your current immigration or employment situation, please contact:

  • FDWA-UK via Facebook
  • Kanlungan: 020 3893 1871 and [email protected]
  • FDWA and Kanlungan are also working on a new project providing direct support for migrant domestic workers. Find out more here.

Kung ikaw ay migranteng domestic worker na nangangailangan ng agarang suporta sa kasalukuyan mong sitwasyon sa immigration o sa trabaho, maaari mong kontakin ang:

  • FDWA-UK via Facebook
  • Kanlungan: 020 3893 1871 and [email protected]
  • Ang FDWA at Kanlungan ay kasalukuyang may proyekto at program sa pagbibigay ng direktang tulong o suporta para sa mga migranteng domestic workers. Alamin ang detalye dito.

Kung ikaw o may kakilala ka na biktima ng human trafficking, pang-aalipin, o pang-aabuso, pwede mong kontakin ang Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline: 08000 121 700.

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