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Slavery or deportation: limbo land for UK's foreign maids

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 1 November 2017 14:18 GMT

A woman walks past the Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben clock tower in central London, Britain June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Phil Noble

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"At night, I don't sleep so good. I feel traumatised - I don't want to be detained or deported like other people I know"

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, Nov 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A work trip to Britain was the opportunity of a lifetime for Mary - finally a chance to escape slavery in Saudi Arabia.

Traumatised by abuse and beatings dished out over six years by her Saudi bosses, Mary, a 37-year-old domestic worker from the Philippines, seized the moment and ran.

Yet in the four years since, she has lived in fear.

Undocumented and unable to stay legally in Britain, Mary works as a cleaner, sending her pay to relatives back home.

The new family does not hurt her, but subjects her to long days for little pay. She is glad to earn 400 pounds ($530) a week, though rarely gets a good night's sleep.

"Every time there is a knock on the door, I can't help but feel scared," Mary told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a support group for foreign domestic workers in London.

"At night, I don't sleep so good. I feel traumatised - I don't want to be detained or deported like other people I know," added Mary, who asked to remain anonymous because of her status.

More than 17,000 domestic workers such as Mary are brought to Britain each year - mainly by wealthy families visiting from Gulf countries - and many complain of being exploited by employers who lock them up, abuse them and withhold pay.


Their plight has worsened since April 2012 when the British government introduced tied visas for domestic workers - removing their right to change employer, bring family members with them or stay longer than half a year, according to several charities.

Britain last year made reforms, allowing domestic workers to change employers within six months of arriving in the country, vowing to better inform workers of their rights, and granting visas of up to two years for those found to be enslaved.

Yet campaigners say very few workers are aware of their new rights, that six months is too short to move jobs, and much of the abuse they suffer - from starvation to rape - is not considered slavery to the government.

With a rising number of overseas domestic workers - about 19,000 visas were granted last year against 15,000 in 2014 - charities fear more women will be exploited behind closed doors.

Many of these workers choose to endure any abuse, rather than flee and lose a visa, paycheck and place to live.

Those who escape tend to find themselves in even greater peril - often alone, undocumented, and scared to seek help.

"They go into other abusive situations, without passport or visa, or any knowledge, and are too afraid to speak out or come forward for fear of being deported," said Marissa Begonia, founder of campaign group The Voice of Domestic Workers.


The government's reform of tied visas has not lessened the abuse and violence inflicted upon foreign domestic workers, according to Avril Sharp of the charity Kalayaan.

Of the workers who entered Britain on the new visa, left their employers then visited the charity for support, 85 percent said they suffered psychological abuse, about two in three were denied regular food or a day off, and a quarter had been beaten.

"There has been little to no impact since the changes ... we are still seeing the same or even higher levels of abuse towards domestic workers," said Sharp, a policy officer at Kalayaan.

The Home Office, Britain's interior ministry, said last year it would introduce voluntary information sessions to educate domestic workers and abusive employers, yet activists say there has been no update on when or how they will be implemented.

"In most cases, workers have been heavily conditioned ... brainwashed into believing they are people who have no rights," said Emily-Anna Gibbs, a lawyer for the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU), a London-based charity.

"Domestic workers are threatened and led to believe that their employers are highly powerful people," Gibbs added. "Changing such beliefs is going to be difficult and take time."

A Home Office spokesman said the government was developing pilot information sessions as part of wider reforms to better protect workers from abuse and slavery.

"We will not tolerate modern slavery or criminals seeking to exploit the vulnerable, which is why we have taken world-leading action through the Modern Slavery Act," the spokesman said.

Britain passed the landmark law in 2015 to crack down on traffickers, make business check supply chains for forced labour, and protect people at risk of enslavement.

At least 13,000 people across Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of modern slavery - police say the true figure is likely to be tens of thousands higher.


At a weekly Sunday session held by The Voice of Domestic Workers, founder Begonia smiled as she watched dozens of women mingle, gossip and enjoy a rare day off from domestic drudgery.

The group provides its 1,500-odd members with counselling, legal advice, English lessons and computer courses, and even rescues abused domestic workers who reach out for help.

"We are a family, we are sisters and we encourage domestic workers to speak out about their suffering to raise awareness," said Begonia, who arrived in Britain in 2004 to work as a maid.

The support group teaches skills such as soap making, flower arranging and baking to help them find work or set up businesses if they choose to go home to countries from India to Indonesia.

But for most domestic workers, going home is not an option.

Mother of three and trained midwife Amara, 42, who escaped her employer in 2014 for fear she might be beaten to death, is doing odd cleaning jobs to finance her children's college fees.

"I can't go home because I won't get a job in my 40s," said Amara, her eyes welling up. "I am barely surviving but it is worth it to ensure that my children have a better future."

($1 = 0.7549 pounds)

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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