* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Barred from working and living on just £65 a week, slavery victims are being left without the support they need to rebuild their lives
Ayesha Mohsin is a solicitor at Kalayaan, working to secure justice for migrant domestic workers and Secretary of the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association.
Sunday 18th October marks Anti-Slavery Day, a reminder that in this day and age, there are victims of trafficking and modern slavery. It is important to recognise that although we are living through the same COVID-19 crisis, we are not all affected in the same way. This, in part, is because some of the most vulnerable in society were receiving inadequate levels of support, even prior to the crisis. During this period they will be amongst those hit hardest by the pandemic.
Sadly, we continue to fail victims of trafficking and modern slavery. The government’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is designed to identify and support potential victims. Part of this support includes the offer of financial assistance and safe accommodation. This is crucial because the majority of victims do not have the right to work or to access mainstream benefits and, as a consequence, have no means of supporting themselves, leaving them vulnerable to re-exploitation.
Those without the right to work, who are referred into the NRM, are supported through the government’s Victim Care Contract. Those provided with catered accommodation receive £35 a week, within self-catered accommodation they receive £65 a week, and those who do not require accommodation receive £39.60 a week. In light of COVID-19, from July 2020, there was a 5% increase in support; an extra 65p a day.
Kalayaan provides assistance and advice to migrant domestic workers within the NRM. One lady described the £39.60 she receives, as being “so little”. She went on to explain how she managed her budget. Every week, she saved half the money she received for transportation and with the rest, one week she would buy food. She listed bread, rice and meat, which she shared because she felt she had to contribute something to those she lives with, to avoid becoming a burden. The following week she would use the other half to buy her personal items, eg sanitary products.
If she runs out of money she relies on the generosity of her friends, who will also share their medicine and even their vitamins to keep her healthy. All her clothing has been donated by friends. When I asked what she would buy, if she was given more money, she knew exactly what she needed; a warm coat and some shoes. She cannot afford to buy these items. It is shocking to hear, that in this wealthy country, someone who the government has identified as being vulnerable and in need of help, goes without a warm coat.
Financial support should be set at a level which provides for an individual’s basic needs, and this should be determined on an evidence-based approach. In research produced by Kalayaan we documented the detrimental impact of being denied the right to work for those within the NRM. Preventing people from working not only denies them the opportunity to support themselves but also the positive psychological benefits, so important in recovering from exploitation, associated with working. This has led to our ongoing campaign for the right to work for those within the NRM.
COVID 19 has served as a magnifier of some of the critical issues that affect the most vulnerable. It has also shown what governments can and will do to protect society. When so many people were in need of government support, focus turned to what was available. Statutory Sick Pay and Universal Credit were found wanting, and so the Furlough Scheme was created to help maintain jobs and incomes. Universal Credit payments increased by £20. These changes and new schemes were more supportive and generous, as it was accepted that people should be helped more effectively when faced with hardship which was beyond their control. Should this not have always been the case?
The UK government is currently reviewing the support it provides to victims within the NRM process. It seems obvious that the right to work aids and empowers victims, and so should be given to those within the NRM. It should also go without saying that any level of support should be consistent with the costs of living. Everyone in the UK should have a warm coat.