* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Human rights amnesty is needed as migrants in Britain struggle during pandemic
By Matt Reynolds, volunteer for Kalayaan, the UK’s leading charity working to improve employment rights for migrant domestic workers.
With welcome news of a vaccine rollout, Kalayaan wrote to government ministers in December 2020 asking them to ensure that all migrant domestic workers are eligible for the coronavirus vaccine irrespective of their immigration status. In their letter, the charity also noted the impact of the government’s hostile environment policies and how this has prevented some workers from registering with a GP, a crucial step to receiving the vaccine and combating the public health crisis.
We should have been pleased, then, when on Monday, the government announced that “Coronavirus vaccines will be offered to everyone living in the UK free of charge, regardless of immigration status” and that no patients would be subject to immigration checks. Seemingly, the government thought this was a good move and a necessary step in the battle to defeat COVID-19. They were wrong. Over 140 organisations representing migrant communities swiftly denounced it as a futile gesture; a move which completely failed to comprehend the fear instilled into migrants after years of policies designed to bar them from having a home, a job, or access to the NHS if they were sick. As the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ recent research demonstrates, migrants will remain afraid to access public services until concrete action is taken to reverse the hostile environment.
One strong example of the need to ensure migrants are properly protected through the pandemic and beyond can be found in the case of migrant domestic workers. Since 2012, this group has been subject to a non-renewable 6-month visa. To make matters worse, between 2012 and 2016, workers were tied to a specific employer which only served to see a spike in reported cases of abuse to Kalayaan.
The 2012 changes were brought in to reflect the government’s thinking (which remains the case now) that domestic work is low skilled and is not deserving of a route to settlement in the UK. Following campaigning by migrant domestic workers and their allies, the government accepted in 2016 that workers shouldn’t be trapped in abuse and permitted an escape route by allowing them to change employer. The catch? Migrant domestic workers can only change employers whilst their visa – fixed at 6 months – is valid. What that means in practice is, workers have months, more often than not weeks, to find a new employer, without references, and without proof of ID because their controlling and abusive employers steal their passports containing their visa.
The government maintains that workers who have been trafficked or enslaved can enter the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) to receive support but this does nothing to prevent abuse from happening in the first place and is of no help to those whose treatment does not amount to trafficking or slavery.
There is a solution to this problem, one that has been tried and tested and is cited nationally and internationally as best practice. It’s to give rights to these workers and restore the original Overseas Domestic Worker visa. Introduced in 1998 and in place until 2012, this visa gave certain basic but fundamental rights to this workforce including the right to renew their visa, put down roots in the UK and apply to remain permanently. These rights kept workers safe and meant they could challenge abuse when it occurred – they could go to the police and prevent the cycle of abuse repeating itself, they could take their employer before the tribunal and claim for unpaid wages. They could do all this whilst working and supporting themselves and their loved ones.
Nine years after migrant domestic workers had their rights stolen and a year into this pandemic, if the UK government is serious about combating the virus, protecting public health and not tolerating abuse of some of society’s most vulnerable, it must give rights back to migrant domestic workers and restore the original Overseas Domestic Worker visa. Only then, will workers be adequately protected and feel confident enough to register with a GP and access services that will keep everyone safe.