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OPINION: Migrant domestic workers in Britain need dignity, not destitution

by Avril Sharp | Kalayaan
Friday, 18 October 2019 09:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman holds her umbrella as she walks across Westminster Bridge in front of Big Ben in London January 11, 2007. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

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

We call on the government to listen to the voices of the victims of modern slavery and review the impact of their policies on this vulnerable group of workers

Avril Sharp is a policy officer for Kalayaan.

It has been over 4 years since the Modern Slavery Act hit the statute books in Britain – the first country in the world to pass such a law. However, migrant domestic workers who are victims of trafficking and slavery can face destitution and homelessness as a direct result of government policies. Reforms are urgently required to ensure these workers are not put at risk of further harm or exploitation.

In 2016, the government conceded that migrant domestic workers in the government's National Referral Mechanism (NRM) - the scheme whereby victims are identified and given support - needed to be given the right to work whilst their claims were being considered.

But only those migrants who enter the NRM and receive a positive reasonable grounds decision (an initial decision whether a person is a victim) whilst their six month domestic worker visas remains valid have permission to work whilst they are in the NRM.

Those with expired visas are banned from working and many struggle to support themselves on the statutory allowance of £35 a month, while waiting to receive a conclusive grounds decision, which on average takes 24 months.

Our new research shows the arbitrariness of this policy and the barriers migrant workers face in seeking advice and pursuing a referral to the NRM whilst their six month visa is valid.

About two dozen workers in the NRM we interviewed said the government failed to provide information during the visa application process or after they arrived in Britain, which directly contributed to the delay in entering the NRM. This was because the workers did not know who to contact for assistance after they escaped their abusers. Workers said it took time to gather courage to escape and were forced to rely on the help of strangers to avoid becoming homeless and destitute.

10 of the workers interviewed did not have permission to work in the NRM as they entered the NRM after their visas had expired. They had to survive on state support at £35 a month which was insufficient to meet their basic needs or provide for their families, pushing some into informal, irregular work.

The restriction on work also affected the mental health of workers who reported feeling worthless, subservient and punished by a system meant to protect them.

All workers we interviewed said they wanted to work rather than rely on government support. The report shows that the extension of the right to work for all migrant domestic workers referred to the NRM can help them live in dignity, prevent from becoming exploited and improve their mental health.

We call on the government to listen to the voices of the victims of modern slavery and review the impact of their policies on this vulnerable group of workers.