Domestic workers fear slavery amid UK visa changes

Posted at 03/30/2012 7:40 AM | Updated as of 03/31/2012 5:09 PM

LONDON - A group of domestic workers led by an award-winning Filipina activist has expressed concerns of abuse and forced slavery under new visa regulations in the UK starting next month.

In an article published by The Guardian, UK-based domestic worker and human rights campaigner Marissa Begonia called recent visa changes as “a return to Victorian-era slavery,” claiming that tighter rules will create a more conducive environment for abuse.

“As a domestic worker I have experienced the kind of abuse and creeping exploitation that can go on in a private house, where there is never a clocking-off time, and you are vulnerable to the predations of men (and women) who know you are powerless. The right to change employer is a very important protection for domestic workers, it allows us the chance to say no to abuse,” wrote the 41-year-old, who has been a domestic worker for 18 years.

From April 6, changes in the Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visa will come into effect, part of stricter immigration policies in the UK.

Under new rules, UK entry for ODWs will be limited to a maximum of 6 months without extension, reduced from 12 months with extension. They will no longer be allowed to settle in the UK, and will be obliged to leave the country at the same time as their employer.

Those working in private households will no longer be allowed to bring their family into the UK, though this privilege will remain for domestic workers of diplomats.

More importantly, all ODWs will no longer be allowed to change employers while in the UK. If they wish to do so, they will be required to leave Britain immediately and reapply for a new visa from their country of origin.

“Removing all these would mean going back to slavery and exploitative situation with no escape route,” said Begonia, who chairs support group Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW), which celebrated its third anniversary this month with a public forum on the ODW visa revisions, attended by domestic workers and their supporters, with guest speakers from Kalayaan, COMPAS, and UNITE The Union.

Speaking to ABS-CBN Europe, she explained: “All migrant domestic workers from J4DW have been through different forms of abuse, including physical and sexual abuse, and some even denied regular food and salary. We know what it’s like to be in these situations, but having the ODW visa has given us a new life to be able to stand and rebuild our once shattered lives. The ODW visa used to provide both protection and rights to domestic workers, who are considered the most vulnerable workers, but protection without rights doesn't work.”

According to research by London-based charity Kalayaan, 41% of migrant domestic workers suffer from some form of abuse from their employers, supported by figures from the Home Office for the period of 2003-2010.

The report stated that “the ODW visa has been successful in protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers, and the protections it affords them will continue to be needed in the long term.”

It also claimed that the current ODW visa puts workers in a better position to “negotiate fairer terms and conditions,” allows them to “pursue legal remedies against their employers” in the UK, where employment tribunals work effectively, and rids them of “underlying vulnerability by removing their dependency on employers,” thus facilitating freedom and better integration into British society.

UK net migration crisis

Home Office Secretary Theresa May told the UK parliament in February that the revision of the ODW visa is designed to ensure that this route is not abused by unskilled workers wishing to enter and settle in the UK.

Begonia disputes this claim, saying: “They shouldn't include domestic workers in their net migration policies. The ODW visa already has restrictions, and it is not wide open as if anyone could come here and be employed. Domestic workers could only come with the employers who employed them, so they come to work and can continue to work for the same employer, or they can change their employer for various reasons. Those who move on are mostly pushed by abuse and need the escape route offered by the ODW visa.”

A study by Kalayaan claims that only 5% of ODW settle in the UK, based on figures from the UK Border Agency for 2010-2011. Furthermore, migrant domestic workers account for only 0.5% of total applications for UK settlement, which it concluded to be a “negligible impact on net migration to the UK”

Begonia, who recently received the Anti-Slavery International Award at the Human Foundation Media Awards, also added: “Domestic workers have a special place in the job market and is very much needed. Their main contribution to the economy is that they allow others to do their respective jobs, they can be bankers, lawyers, or businessmen. These employers work at different times and they can be travelling outside the UK. Because there are domestic workers who look after their children, the elderly and their households, they can work and perform their job properly knowing they have workers looking after their families in their absence.”

Amid criticisms, the British government reassured the public of its commitment to provide support for vulnerable workers in the country.

A statement from the Home Office said: “We will be introducing a new package of protections that will minimise the possibility of abusive relationships being brought to the UK, and will provide information on and access to suitable protections in the UK and a route home for those ODWs who are in need of this.”

It also cited initiatives that are already in place to support vulnerable workers, including Pay and Works Right Helpline for issues on employment conditions, and National Referral Mechanism for victims of trafficking, alongside a number of NGOs.

Changes on ODW visas are part of a wider government initiative to balance net migration in the UK, estimated at 250,000 on June 2011. This figure was determined by the difference between immigration and emigration within a year, estimated at 593,000 and 343,000 respectively from the same period.

The UK is also dealing with a budget deficit estimated at £125 billion for 2011-2012, and national debt in excess of £1 trillion.