Comment: Modern day slavery – how domestic workers are left at the mercy of their employer
By Marissa Begonia
For a month, I couldn't make-up my mind if my charity would celebrate International Domestic Workers Day. Justice 4 Domestic Workers was still reeling from our defeat over the modern slavery bill. Some felt we had nothing to celebrate. We had campaigned and lobbied MPs and the Lords tirelessly, asking them to give foreign domestic workers in the UK the right to change their employer and thereby escape abuse. We dreamed up publicity stunts – cleaning the pavements of Whitehall, or delivering 'No To Slavery' postcards to No10. We are a small charity, run entirely by current foreign domestic workers living in the UK, and we use our only day off each week to organise, campaign, and protect each other.
It was a 'ping pong' bill, bouncing between the Lords and the Commons. At the last moment, we convinced members of the House of Lords to include a clause removing the disastrous "tied visa", a regime introduced by the government in April 2012 which prevented domestic workers leaving their employer even if they were abusive. But as our hard-fought-for amendment made it back to the Commons, the government promptly voted it down. Our hopes of justice were dashed.
Instead, the Home Office announced yet another review of the overseas domestic workers visa. J4DW and our allies are sceptical – the modern slavery bill's own evidence review panel already found the right to change employer was paramount in providing protection to domestic workers. The UN special rapporteur on domestic workers reproached the government for their 'tied visa'. The tied visa system is scarily similar to the much despised 'kafala' regime in the Gulf, a system which appears to have now been imported to the UK.
Still, International Domestic Workers Day is an historic event – and bruised though we may be, we are still celebrating. At J4DW we are all domestic workers, and so we used our only day off – Sunday – to tell the people of London about our plight. We had no money to hire a bus, so instead we boarded a tourist bus en-masse bearing placards.
The bus driver was understandably a bit cautious, so he asked to see what they were. They read: 'No To Slavery', 'Re-instate Overseas Domestic Worker Visa' and 'Domestic Workers are Workers'. He laughed and told us: "You are doing good for vulnerable people, hop on!"
On the next tourist bus we boarded, we over-heard the driver and tour guide chatting nervously and saying we shouldn't be on the bus with our political campaign. I went right up to them and explained what we were up to, what we were celebrating and what we were fighting for. And hearing that, we were allowed to stay.
So our unofficial tour of London went on, our placards hanging out the top of tour buses. We hopped on and off to tell people about what J4DW did. We stopped in Trafalgar Square for a lunch break then headed to Tower Bridge to perform, with members singing and dancing to raise awareness of the plight of our fellow domestic workers. Outside City Hall, as we sang, people began chanting along with us: "Justice for Domestic Workers, Justice for Domestic Workers!" The day ended with a tourist cruise down the river, with our placards still being waved on the deck.
International Domestic Workers Day falls on the 4th Anniversary of ILO Convention 189 – a historic employment treaty which asked governments to offer full and proper protection to vulnerable domestic workers, at risk of abuse behind closed doors. The ILO convention was a victory for more than 50 million domestic workers around the world, who are mostly women and girls. Convention 189 now has 18 ratifications from ILO member states, five of whom are in the EU. The UK government has refused to ratify, preferring domestic workers in Britain to face abuse without help from the government.
This is the same government which has pledged to "end modern day slavery". There are 16,000 migrant domestic workers coming to the UK each year, usually brought in by employers also from different countries, mainly the Gulf. This is a political and immigration issue as much as it is about worker protection. Every single one of those workers – mainly female – is at risk of abuse because of the UK government. In theory, they want to end modern slavery. But the modern slavery bill showed their commitment is skin deep.
J4DW has been dealing with the impact of their tied visa system for the last three years, during which time I've been personally rescuing fellow migrant domestic workers from their abusive employers. Tying workers to one employer and automatically criminalising them when they escape abuse has created further exploitation. Some of the women I have rescued have escaped several households. The government is licensing abuse. Employers know that the visa system offers them protection as abusers, which their abuse victims can never enjoy. According to research by Kalayaan, another charity which campaigns on this issue, 14% of domestic workers in Britain who have had their visas tied report physical abuse from their employers, compared to nine per cent without the tie. Two thirds of tied workers can't leave their house freely, compared to 41% without a tie. Over 80% of tied domestic workers have no time off, compared with two thirds on the previous visa system.
I am glad we celebrated International Domestic Workers day and that the people of London gave us such a warm welcome.
The British government wants to give wealthy Gulf employers moving to London the same rights to enslave and abuse their domestic workers as they enjoy in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. This isn't right. We will keep fighting, and we call on the British government to not only repeal the tied visa, but also to ratify ILO Convention 189. We are workers. We deserve our rights.
Marissa Begonia is a domestic worker, mother of three and chair of the self-help group Justice 4 Domestic Workers (J4DW) which is based at Unite the Union in Holborn.
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