OPINION: Pandemic exacerbates situation for domestic migrant workers, many victims of modern slavery

by Ayesha Mohsin | Kalayaan
Tuesday, 21 April 2020 15:58 GMT

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

UK government urgently needs to support migrant domestic workers and victims of modern slavery, as COVID-19 increases risk for exploitation

Ayesha Mohsin is a solicitor at Kalayaan, working to secure justice for migrant domestic workers and Secretary of the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association (ILPA)

It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that the government, to quote Rishi Sunak, needs to do “whatever it takes”, to see the UK get through this crisis. COVID-19 has led to the government introducing a number of measures to support different sectors of society. In this task, it is important that government does not overlook those at the margins of society, which includes migrants who have, and have not yet, been recognised as victims of modern slavery.

Whilst recognising the enormity of the challenge faced by government during this unprecedented time, and appreciating the efforts made, we need to make sure that everyone is offered assistance, so that we can all get through this. We must strive to ensure that no one, knowingly, slips through the net. A crisis can bring out the best in society, but unfortunately it can also create an opportunity for the unscrupulous, as we have seen in the reports of profiteering, fraud, and the sale of quack remedies. It is the most vulnerable that are risk from this.

Migrant domestic workers include men and women, who have come to the UK with an Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visa. Unfortunately, ODW are often victims of ill treatment and exploitation. It is common to hear accounts of people being forced to work excessively long hours, without breaks and paid less than the national minimum wage. Some are forcibly confined to their workplaces, not given enough food or even a proper place to sleep. They are often subject to verbal and sometimes physical abuse. When they escape from their employers, before or after their visa expires, they have then had to contend with the obstacles, created by the hostile environment, preventing access to basic necessities. These migrant domestic workers will become more vulnerable as a result of the risk and impact of COVID-19 and the measures currently in place to tackle this crisis.

These are just a few of the steps, government urgently needs to take:

SUSPEND THE NO RECOURSE TO PUBLIC FUNDS RESTRICTION (NRPF)

The NRPF – a condition imposed on certain immigration statuses where the subject does not have access to welfare benefits or public housing – includes also recognised victims of modern slavery. As COVID-19 is making employment far more precarious, this is alarming and must be suspended, if not removed. 

When people under the NRPF are dismissed from their jobs without cause or notice, or because they fall ill, they cannot benefit from the furlough scheme, they cannot claim statutory sick pay, and because of the NRPF condition, they cannot apply for universal credit, so they are at greater risk of becoming destitute. Migrants, who are former victims of modern slavery are less likely to have the safety net of friends and family, to turn to for support. There is a real risk that they will revert to an exploitative situation in order to survive, as this is a familiar pattern of treatment, and they have no alternatives.

It is also unjust that during this time of crisis, workers who have paid their tax, are excluded from the safety net that the social welfare system provides.

INCREASE THE SUBSISTENCE FOR VICTIMS OF MODERN SLAVERY

Those who are in the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), for identifying and supporting victims of modern slavery, and receiving support under the Victim Care Contract (VVC), will in practice receive £5 a day, which is arguably insufficient at the best of times, but is inadequate when the price of goods are on the increase and when, as a result of the current crisis, to stay safe your shopping basket must now include more soap, hand sanitizer and face masks.

HELP OVERSTAYERS AND POTENTIAL VICTIMS OF EXPLOITATION

We must also consider the plight of those who have yet to be identified as victims of trafficking and modern slavery, who as a result of their fear of the authorities, have overstayed their visas. Overstayers are not permitted to work and have no right to any assistance or support. They are even afraid to seek medical assistance in case this leads to them being detained.

When the world is in crisis, we must remember that they also need support, to enable them to survive. At a time when food banks are reporting shortages and charities are subject to huge pressures, there is a real danger that people at the periphery, which includes overstayers in the UK, will be going without food, and the essential supplies needed to survive and stay healthy. In this difficult time, all in society, regardless of their status, need to be protected and need to be reassured they can ask for help. We need to do this, to ensure the wider safety of everyone, as if COVID-19 remains in the margins, this will prevent us from emphatically defeating this pandemic.