On a fall night in 2016, a small woman hurried along the wide streets of one of West London’s upmarket neighborhoods. Weeks earlier she had left her family 6,000 miles away in a camp for internally displaced people in the Philippines, promising to send them money from her position in the household of a wealthy family in one of the world’s richest cities. That autumn night she felt she was fleeing for her life.
Maria (not her real name) was one of nearly 19,000 people who entered the UK in 2016 on a visa sponsored by a wealthy overseas employer. After a review in 2015 found the system made workers vulnerable to abuse, the government committed to reform. But campaigners say the key features that make workers vulnerable to abuse have been maintained, while other forms of support are being cut.
Advocates told WikiTribune that even after the British government commissioned and published this independent research into the system, it failed to act on its key recommendations, leaving desperate overseas workers vulnerable to abuse, and unable to seek help.
A common journey, that invites exploitation
In summer 2016, Maria left her brothers, sisters, and parents in a camp for people displaced by crisis. She told them she was going to work for a wealthy family in the West and would send them money. Their lives, turned over by conflict, would become better, she hoped. Weeks later she was penniless, without a passport or other documentation, abused and exploited by her employer.
“My situation in London with my employer is very, very terrible,” said Maria, who described long hours, almost no pay, and little food or sleep. “I feel I am dying, I think I can’t survive this, so I go out and walk and walk,” she said.
Through an agency whose name she did not want to mention, Maria was taken from the Philippines to Saudi Arabia where she met a family for whom she was to be a domestic servant, looking after three children and doing household chores. She was soon on board a plane to London. During the flight her employer took her passport and other travel documentation, including a six-month Overseas Domestic Worker visa, issued by the UK Home Office.
Maria lasted a month with her employers, sleeping on the floor of a shared children’s room. After fleeing their house, she sought refuge in a church, where she found other women from the Philippines, who took her to a refuge center.
It is a familiar story for the people who come to Kalayaan, whose website contains stories of overseas domestic workers physically abused by the children they looked after, and sexual and psychological abuse by employers. It is the only organization in the UK that is dedicated to documenting and offering support for people who have suffered abuse while in the country on the Overseas Domestic Worker Visa.
Avril Sharp, a Kalayaan caseworker who has been advising Maria, said her experience chimes with those of most of the people it advises.
“Our clients routinely tell us that they don’t have possession of their passport, that it’s held by their employer for their journey to the UK,” said Sharp. They have no personal space, no bed, and little food. Many have their salaries arbitrarily docked if they are paid at all, she said.
“They are even more vulnerable to being abused because they don’t know how to access help, how to leave an abusive employer,” Sharp said.
Kafala in the UK – legacy of the tied visa
The abuse suffered by overseas domestic workers in Britain is nothing new. The Overseas Domestic Worker Visa is the legacy of the so-called “tied visa” which did not allow workers to change employer. The system was mostly used by wealthy families from the Middle East, and was seen as a continuation of kafala, a form of sponsorship for unskilled migrant workers used in many Gulf countries, which critics say facilitates abusive working conditions.
If they left an abusive employer in the UK, workers on the tied visa effectively became undocumented immigrants, legally unemployable and vulnerable to further abuse.
Kalayaan and groups including Anti-Slavery International campaigned to raise awareness of the abuse suffered by those workers, mainly women. They were the subject of a major report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2014. As a result the government commissioned an independent review by James Ewins, a barrister with a wide practice including experience in tackling modern slavery.
Ewins published his review in December 2015, confirming the findings made by HRW and Kalayaan that the visa system as it stood made domestic workers vulnerable to abuse.
In the report Ewins made three primary recommendations: abolish the “tie” by allowing workers to change employer; give workers more time after leaving their employer to find work than the remainder of their six-month visa; and create mandatory information sessions to ensure newly-arrived domestic workers are made aware of their rights – including the right to leave an abusive employer.
So far, the government has taken one out of three. Domestic workers are now in theory allowed to change employer, though they must find an equivalent role. That reform was almost meaningless without Ewins’s other recommendations, according to advocates.
Domestic workers are not made aware they have the right to leave their employers and those who are aware know that they have only the remainder of their initial six-month visa, often only weeks, to find another employer – often without their documentation.
What the government did, in abolishing the tie, is not enough, Ewins told WikiTribune.
“Has it made a change? I don’t know,” Ewins said, adding that there is a marked lack of data available about the number of people on the visa who suffer abuse. This is partly because people who flee their employers still worry about their legal status – one of the reasons Ewins recommended they be given information meetings.
“I suspect it will not be enough because the basic term of the visa has not been sufficiently extended,” he said.
“Realistically,” said Ewins, “the balance of a six-month visa, upon a change of employer, is not going to give a domestic worker sufficient offer to an alternative employer, they would only be able to stay for a few months,” particularly given their work usually requires looking after children, so requires familiarity and trust.
Kate Roberts, from UK-based charity the Human Trafficking Foundation, said the time restraint on the visa continues to place vulnerable people in a quandary.
“Migrant domestic workers have usually migrated due to poverty and the need to provide for often a significant number of family and extended family members,” said Roberts. “This puts significant pressure on them not to leave even horribly abusive employment unless they know they can find alternative employment.”
Cuts to support make life more difficult for those who escape
As a compromise measure, in 2016 the government said that domestic workers on the visa who could prove a level of coercion, control, and severe abuse by their employer, could apply to be identified as a victim of human trafficking or modern slavery through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). Victims in the NRM program are given support including temporary safe house accommodation.
If the authorities accept a migrant domestic worker is a victim, they can apply for a visa allowing them to remain in the UK for up to two years as a domestic worker. This application needs to be made within 28 days of receiving a positive decision, and demonstrate that they will be self-sufficient and not reliant on public funds. Advocates argue this will be difficult to establish for those who have been kept waiting on a decision, who have not been allowed to work while in the NRM, and who will be trying to find new employment without references.
In effect, offering access to the NRM as an alternative to changing employer could be counterproductive, said Roberts.
Sometimes, domestic workers effectively “have to wait until their employment deteriorates to the point of modern slavery or trafficking for domestic servitude and then leave, with no guarantee that they will be believed or their situation will reach the threshold,” said Roberts.
In October 2017, the Home Office announced a package of reforms to the NRM, including an expansion of services for child trafficking victims.
However, the reforms almost halved the support allowance for victims of trafficking from £65 ($92) per week, to £37.75 ($53).
According to NGO Focus on Labour Exploitation, this level of maintenance demonstrably puts victims who make it into the NRM at risk of becoming victims of trafficking and abusive work again, as they are likely to take on informal work to get by.
In Kalayaan’s experience, it is “incredibly difficult” for victims of trafficking to survive on the allowance, Sharp said.
“Poverty is seen as a factor for becoming vulnerable to being trafficked, so the government’s current stance on not allowing domestic workers to work while they’re in the NRM is almost placing them back at risk,” said Sharp.
A Home Office spokesperson told WikiTribune that overall funding for the NRM had not been reduced, as the program had been expanded to offer more support to certain victims. No future cuts are currently planned, the person said.
Information is power
Though the Home Office is a “slow machine,” according to Ewins, there is hope that the information meetings will be in place by this summer. But they still will not be compulsory.
Information meetings will be “crucial,” he said. As British authorities currently have no way of identifying victims as they enter the UK, or once they are ensconced in their households, “the much better strategy is to empower and inform victims to self-identify”.
People on the domestic worker visa must be given “as much information, in as friendly and receptive a context as possible,” said Ewins, “to enable them to understand what they should expect, and if they are being used in any way to see that there is a route out.”
Maria, with Kalayaan’s help, is waiting to see if the authorities accept that her experiences with her abusive employer amount to trafficking or modern slavery. She is not allowed to work and says she worries for her family and how they will survive.
The government timeframe for this decision is up to 45 days, though many of Kalayaan’s clients have had to wait much longer. One client waited 617 days before authorities found there were grounds to conclude they had been a victim of trafficking.
Finding Kalayaan may not be enough for Maria in the end. But at least she is now aware of her rights, and what she is waiting for, both for her own situation and the family she left behind.
“I wish the government allows me to work,” she said. “I am not worried about my situation at the moment, [but] my problem is I need to work.”