‘Tied visas’ and inadequate labour protections: a formula for abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers in the United Kingdom

by Daphne Demetriou | GAATW_IS | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 3 November 2015 09:56 GMT

Workers cross Westminster Bridge towards the Houses of Parliament on a misty morning in London, Britain, November 2, 2015. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Domestic work is inherently precarious employment sector with number of aspects that automatically place workers in vulnerable position

A longer version of this article first appeared in the Anti-Trafficking Review, Issue 5.

In April 2012, the UK government removed the right of migrant domestic workers to change employers. This change grouped the UK with Arab states utilising the notorious Kafala system, which also ties the legal status of workers to a named employer. This system has been condemned for enhancing worker exploitation.

The inability to change employers and the finite period of time allowed to remain in the UK create an easily exploitable group with no viable recourse to support or redress. These changes become increasingly unjustifiable when one considers that UK labour law partly excludes domestic workers, and where provisions do extend to them, they have proved difficult to enforce. Accordingly, tied visas and inadequate labour protections produce a formula for abuse and exploitation of these workers.

Domestic work is inherently a precarious employment sector with a number of aspects that automatically place workers in a vulnerable position. With most migrant domestic workers entering the UK living in the same dwelling as their employer, access to information about their rights and assistance when exploited becomes more challenging. The longstanding principle of the inviolability of the private home confines domestic work to the shadows, with numerous States excluding this sector from labour inspections thus allowing abuse to occur undetected. Importantly, the conflation of the workers’ workplace with the home can enhance the intimacy between the two parties and reinforce the view of a paternalistic or familial relationship, making the adherence to labour protections more unlikely. Therefore, the fact that this employment is already a precarious one makes its regulation and labour protection imperative.

The negative impact of tying workers to their employers has been widely recorded. Commenting on the strikingly similar Kafala system, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants noted that this system ‘[…] enables unscrupulous employers to exploit employees.’ Many reports on the Kafala system have highlighted an increase in abuse and exploitation, including non-payment of wages, inadequate living conditions, no freedom of movement, and physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Notably, similar forms of exploitation have already been recorded following the new UK tied visa. A 2015 report found that in the three years since the introduction of this visa, the level of abuse reported by migrant domestic workers has been consistently higher than under the 1998 visa.

Such exploitation is exacerbated by the exemption of domestic workers from many UK labour regulations, including the maximum weekly time, length of night work, as well as the health and safety provisions. While some labour laws do extend to them, for example the right to paid holiday, statutory sick pay and statutory maternity leave, the hidden nature of this employment makes the enforcement of such rights challenging.

Despite the censure of this visa and the numerous calls to revert to the 1998 visa, which allowed workers to change employers, this visa regime remains unchanged. Efforts were made during the Parliamentary debates of the recently introduced Modern Slavery Act 2015 to include a provision allowing such workers to change employers, yet these failed. A report reviewing this visa is due to be released in November 2015.

At a minimum, the UK must revert to the previous visa regime allowing workers to change employers. Removing the dependency of workers on their employers for their legal status could give workers their voice back, allowing them to complain when their labour rights are violated, and the courage to leave when exploited, without fear of detention and deportation. While this change will not eliminate all instances of exploitation, it will at least eliminate the institutionalisation of the abuse and exploitation occurring currently. The UK must also extend labour protections to domestic workers and ratify the 2011 ILO Convention ensuring decent work for domestic workers.

Daphne Demetriou is a PhD candidate at Middlesex University, United Kingdom. Her thesis addresses the exploitation of migrant domestic workers through a human trafficking paradigm. It examines the interaction between domestic workers’ migration and human trafficking and attempts to apply the United Nations Trafficking Protocol definition to the situation of migrant domestic workers who are exploited.