Jan Royall on the shameful treatment of overseas domestic workers in the UK
In 1988, in response to well documented exploitation of overseas domestic workers, the then Conservative government introduced a new visa to improve basic protections. This system continued until April 2012 when the Coalition introduced a tied visa which, shockingly, means these workers are bonded by immigration rules to their employer. The workers, even when suffering daily abuse, are forced either to stay with their unscrupulous employer or become undocumented if they leave.
One of the excellent NGOs working with abused migrant domestic workers, Kalayaan, have brought many desperate cases to our attention, including a woman working 19 hours a day, sleeping on the floor, her passport taken by her employer, no days off and often hungry.
Kalayaan have also found that 71% of those tied to their employer reported not being allowed out of the house unaccompanied, compared with 43% of those not tied; 65% of tied workers do not have their own room, often sleeping on the kitchen floor, with no privacy or time to themselves, compared with 34% of those not tied; and 60% of tied workers are not paid any salary compared with 14% when visa arrangements allowed them to escape and transfer to another employer. These appalling increases in deplorable conditions are directly attributable to the Coalition’s change in visa conditions.
The joint pre-legislative committee on the Modern Slavery Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Liberty, the TUC, and the many lawyers and charities working with victims have all called for the visas to be untied. There is a huge amount of evidence that tied visas have exacerbated abuse and made it much more difficult for these workers to seek help. Currently, if they escape, they are breaching immigration rules.
In the Commons, MPs on all sides spoke in defence of overseas domestic workers and when an amendment was put to the vote in the Public Bill Committee it was only defeated by the Chair's casting vote. So far in the Lords, we have had forceful speeches from all benches at Second Reading and Committee in favour of reinstating the pre-2012 protections and untying the visas. So why won't the Coalition act to right this wrong, to end the physical and psychological harm that is being suffered by vulnerable, terrified people?
Home Office Minister, Lord Bates has made profound changes in this Bill and come forward with some changes on the overseas domestic worker's front. But these tinker around the edges and do not take into account either the vulnerability of these workers or the cruelty and cunning of employers – including diplomats. The government has also announced an independent review – something that is unnecessary when the evidence is crystal clear and action must take precedent.
We are not talking about huge numbers of people, but the miserable, poor, abused – usually women – often with dependents relying on their support, and lured to employment here by ruthless and exploitative employers. These workers need a change in the law, and Peers today have the opportunity to help make that a reality.
Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LabourRoyall
Published 25th February 2015