Shine A Light

Super-rich boss vs abused maid: whose side are we on?

The UK government makes it easy for the super-rich to harm their domestic employees. One small amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill could make a big difference, but ministers seem strangely reluctant.

Hugh Davies
16 February 2015
J4DW protest outside parliament

Domestic workers rally against slavery in the UK, Human Rights Day, December 2014 (Javier Perez de la Cruz). 

It’s almost midnight when my phone finally rings. It’s an odd time for an interview but Lita is busy at work from six o’clock in the morning until 11pm every night. I thank her for calling and ask how she is.

“I’m very, very tired,” she says, her voice quiet.  

Lita is 44 years old and one of 16,000 overseas domestic workers who have arrived each year in the UK since 2010. Like so many, she left her country and family behind to seek better paid work in the Gulf. A single mother, she wanted to provide for her two children by sending money home to Sri Lanka. An agency found her a job as a domestic worker in Dubai. 

Lita describes her Dubai employers as “very bad”. She had no time off and was not allowed to leave the house without permission. She says the children frequently referred to her as an animal, the parents shouted at her, the older children beat her.

The Dubai employers brought her on holiday to England several times. She was allowed her passport only on the plane and walking through immigration. She spent her nights locked up in the residence. Last summer, in England again, Lita decided to escape. In the early hours one morning, she fled from a residence on the south coast and boarded a bus to London with nothing but a name of somebody she hoped would help her: Marissa Begonia.

Out of one cage, into another

Begonia is a full time domestic worker who also runs the Justice for Domestic Workers Group (J4DW). We meet in a cold conference room in London’s Holborn at the offices of Unite, the union.

“I don’t have much time to sleep,” she tells me over coffee. She regularly receives calls in the middle of the night from fleeing workers. “At stake is our well-being,” she says, “If they need to be rescued, then they can call us. It could be midnight, it could be 2am.”

Like Lita, Marissa left her homeland, the Philippines, to become a domestic worker for a family in the Gulf. She too was badly treated and managed to escape after the family brought her to England.

“Arriving in the UK, you only realise that you have rights when you start to meet fellow domestic workers,” she tells me.

Marissa left behind children aged 1, 2 and 3. “I had to choose; either I leave them or I watch them die. In the Philippines, you see children everywhere in the street, some are prostitutes. And as a mother, I didn’t want that to happen to mine.”

Marissa Begonia outside parliament

Marissa Begonia, Human Rights Day, December 2014. 

There is one big difference between Marissa’s story and Lita’s.

In April 2012, the British government introduced the tied-visa scheme. Workers entering the UK on a tied visa are not permitted to change employer. So, those fleeing abuse find themselves undocumented, vulnerable to further abuse and exploitation and living in fear of deportation.

The Home Office claims the scheme ensures that overseas domestic workers stay in the country only temporarily — and that it gives them protection.

“Rather than increase the risk of abuse, the measure was designed to stop abusive relationships between employers and their domestic workers,” a Home Office spokesman told the BBC’s Asian Service last year. “Any person known to have previously abused a worker will not able to bring employees to the UK.”

The Home Office said that domestic workers have “access to protections under employment laws”, and that the Visa application comes with a leaflet explaining their entitlements and giving phone numbers they could call in the event of abuse.

Kalayaan, a London charity that supports domestic workers, tells a different story. They say that the number of workers reporting physical abuse has doubled since the tied-visa came along. Justice for Domestic Workers reports that 53 per cent of those with a tied-visa work more than 16 hours a day and 60 per cent are paid less than £50 a week.

“When I picked Lita up from Victoria bus station,” says Marissa, “she was so happy. This is someone who has been in prison for 13 years and had suddenly found freedom. I couldn’t tell her what was happening in the UK now, I didn’t want to cut off her happiness. But actually she’d come out of one cage and entered into another without knowing”.

Stamping out slavery?

The Home Office estimates that between 10,000 and 13,000 people are trapped in slavery in the UK. Last year the government introduced the Modern Slavery Bill to “stamp it out”. Home Secretary Theresa May said the Bill “reflects the Government’s determination to lead the global fight against modern slavery and to disrupt, prosecute and punish the organised criminal gangs which are behind the majority of this evil trade in human beings.”

There was no mention in the government’s press release of super-rich employers or oppressed domestic workers.

Debating the Bill in December, Baroness Caroline Cox said: “The current lack of protection for these workers, far too many of whom are subjected to appalling conditions of domestic servitude, remains a serious omission from the Bill.”

On Friday 6th Feb, Lord Hylton proposed an amendment to the Bill to allow overseas domestic workers to change employer.

On Monday 9th Feb, Theresa May told the House of Commons that “concerns have been raised about the exploitation of domestic workers from overseas”. She announced an independent review of the visa arrangements for domestic workers from the barrister James Ewins, “an expert in modern slavery issues”. (He describes himself on Twitter as “Faith-filled lover of God, justice, the poor, my wife, my children, the church, the voiceless, friends, anti-slavery, and sailing”.)

Marissa asks: “Why won’t they just change the Modern Slavery Bill, it is right in front of them? They have done a review already and evidence of the severe impact of their tied visa system has been presented before.”

Last week I asked the Home Office when Ewins would report on his findings. July, said a spokesman.

Meanwhile the Modern Slavery Bill continues its progress through Parliament.

Servants in Mayfair

Who gains from the tied-visa scheme?

Middle Eastern governments and sovereign funds have spent £4.4 billion on London real estate since 2006, according to the Daily Mail. Promoting London on a visit to the United Arab Emirates two years ago Boris Johnson happily described himself as the “mayor of the eighth emirate” and said “it’s a great asset to London that we’re able to count on the affection of people from this area”. The Qataris state that their cumulative investment in the UK is £20 billion.

Boris Johnson in Qatar

Making friends: Boris Johnson and Qatari culture minister, April 2013 (Andrew Parsons / i-Images). 

Wetherells, marketers of ‘Mayfair’s Finest Properties’ report that: “Mayfair is one of the few places in central London where the super-rich can find a grand townhouse with servants’ quarters. Today, more domestic staff are employed in Mayfair than during the ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ Georgian and Victorian eras.” (PDF here)

In 2013, Middle Eastern visitors were the second biggest spenders of all tourists to the UK. They spent £888 million. Luxury goods retailers call the period around Ramadan the ‘Ramadan Rush’. Harrods provides a dedicated in-house booking desk for Qatar Airways. Gulf shoppers can get private appointments at Burberry. The Savoy employs Arabic-speaking staff.

The UK government has introduced an “electronic visa waiver” scheme for visitors from the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar allowing them stays of up to six months for the purposes of tourism, business, healthcare or study.

Is giving them excessive powers over their servants one more incentive?

According to Kalayaan, a London-based charity, 85 per cent of domestic workers who arrive in the UK are women. Kalayaan’s clients report poor wages and no days off, lack of food, beatings and sexual abuse. In 2011, the UK was one of nine countries worldwide that voted against the International Labour Organisation's Domestic Workers Convention, claiming its current laws were sufficient to prevent abuse.


Cambridge House, Mayfair, a “grand home”, valued at a reported £250 million: Reuben Brothers

Marissa says: “We are telling the government that we know many workers are not being paid, we know they are not having days off, we know they are being beaten, we know they are being raped. Can they step forward to the authorities to report this? No. Why? Because they will be arrested and deported.”

“That is why we were very happy when the government announced the Modern Slavery Bill. But it’s not changing anything. What’s the use of this bill, without domestic workers being protected? Workers like Lita need protection and I know that right now, she is not okay, but there’s no way out for them at the moment.”

Thirteen years after leaving her family behind in Sri Lanka, Lita finds herself working as an undocumented domestic worker in Central London. She has no rights, no days off, very low pay and could be deported at any moment. 

“I’m like a robot,” says Lita. “There are no holidays. They say, do this, do that. They know I don’t have a visa, so can’t tell anybody.” She begins to cry. “I’m too tired, my body is too tired, I cannot work anymore. No time to sleep, no time to eat, I cannot even go to the doctor.”

I ask her if she regrets running away, and she pauses. “It is still better in England,” she says. “Tomorrow sir, I’m going to meet my lawyer. I know one day I will manage to get a visa, because my heart is clear and God will help me.”



Note: Some names have been changed.

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