Comment: How the Home Office traps domestic workers in slavery
By Alastair Sloan
This government's attitude to the plight of domestic workers in the UK is cynical, backward and self-serving.
Domestic workers labour under a dangerous 'tied-visa' system made infamous for its use in Qatar, Dubai or Saudi Arabia.
In legislation introduced in April 2012 by the coalition, visas of domestic workers living in the UK have been tied to their employers. Under this new system domestic workers stuck with an abusive employer have a stark choice: stay with their bosses despite the abuse, or run away and work illegally, risking deportation, exploitation and abuse.
There are plenty of fair and decent employers who employ migrant domestic workers, pay well and ask for reasonable hours. The problem is there are also employers who economically, verbally, physically or even sexually abuse their employees. The tied-visa system traps vulnerable women with these dangerous employers, behind the closed doors of ten-bedroom households in Knightsbridge, Chelsea and Kensington. It gives them no way out.
I have spent a great deal of time with the thousand domestic workers who are members of Justice 4 Domestic Workers – writing about, photographing, filming and interviewing those who have faced abuse at the hands of their own employers. In total, there are perhaps 16,000 migrant domestic workers in Britain. Most have no problems at all, but a critical minority don't.
Some have been starved for days as they clean the houses of rich businessmen, forced to eat scraps from the bin. Women have been sexually assaulted. Women have been underpaid – or told to use their own salaries to buy food for the entire house. Women have worked from 6am in the morning to 2am at night – often with no days off.
Under the new visa system, these women are unable to leave their employers. This is modern slavery, it's happening in Britain right now, and the government refuses to act.
I rang the Home Office press team back in November, just as James Brokenshire (at that time security minister) was responding to the Lambeth slavery case in an interview with BBC News. Brokenshire, who has now become immigration minister, had proudly proclaimed to a television audience that this government would end slavery. He was later quoted in the Telegraph along similar lines, wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post, was interviewed by the Guardian,and then helped introduce the modern slavery bill.
When I spoke to a press officer for the Home Office shortly after Brokenshire had asserted the government was against slavery, he seemed completely wrong-footed. I was asking for Brokenshire to clarify his position on slavery. Why was the government was not tackling the most obvious manifestation of modern slavery – the domestic worker tied-visa, which they had introduced?
He dithered and tried to fob me off. He said my question wasn't clear. He couldn't understand why I wanted a statement about slavery but simultaneously about the tie-visa. Was this a question for the immigration minister or for James Brokenshire?
We settled that I would send him an email with the request. I put the subject line as: "Statement required: domestic worker abuse." Once the statement arrived back, I noticed something strange. The Home Office had taken the time to edit my subject line to: "Statement required: Abuse of domestic worker visa system."
This legislation has been the cause of countless miseries amongst the domestic workers and this edit personified the cruelty of the Home Office. They didn't care about physical or sexual abuse. This government is about as serious about fighting slavery as Tate & Lyle were.
To put in context how absurd the Home Office position is, note that domestic workers have to arrive with their employer. Domestic workers are typically brought from a Middle Eastern Gulf state, where they have secured work via a recruitment agency in their home country and travelled over to the Gulf to meet and live with their employer. From there they are taken to Britain.
It is not their choice to come to the UK. It is, by definition, never their choice. The idea that this visa could be "abused" by domestic workers is absurd. I would expect the Home Office press team to know this, but no such luck.
The press officer did however let slip some of the reasoning behind why the domestic worker tied-visa might have been introduced. Domestic workers were, apparently, "running away". The tied-visa was required to stop this happening.
"Running away" is not abuse of the visa system. This is what most would simply call changing jobs. The tied-visa now prevents domestic workers changing jobs even when their employer refuses to pay them, beats them or starves them.
The context of why the Home Office might believe domestic workers to be "running away" is clear, although this does not make it beyond the moral faculties of the Home Office. Conditions for domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates are far worse than in the UK.
So when domestic workers came to London, they were taking a perfectly legal opportunity to change employers and avoid abuse. This is something that would be impossible under the qafala system back in Saudi Arabia, for example. Personally, I would be proud over a British legal system which allowed abused women to make this switch, rather than instigate a new regime which forces them to stick with a cruel employer.
The question is, who was the Home Office receiving complaints of "running away" from? Self-evidently it was the employers, the wealthy Kuwaitis, Qataris, Emirati and Omanis who have flooded west London in recent years. The UK government is keen to court their wealth – not only have they dramatically reduced barriers to getting British visas from these countries, but Cameron has also announced the UK's first Sharia-compliant bond.
The message is clear – if you are making billions in the Gulf, bring those billions to Britain. Also, bring your domestic workers with you. They won't run away – we've passed laws to prevent it.
Alastair Sloan writes for The Guardian and The Independent in the UK and for PolicyMic and The Daily Beast in the US. Follow him on Twitter or read his latest work at www.unequalmeasures.com. If you want to help Justice4Domestic Workers and Kalayaan win their campaign to abolish the tied visa, please send an email of support to your MP.
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