In London they just locked me at home.… I ate after they finished, the leftovers…. When I ran away I was sleeping in the park because I didn’t know anybody here…. I felt like a beggar.
—Sarah S., a Filipina domestic worker on a new tied visa, London, December 18, 2013.
Working and often living in other people’s homes, migrant domestic workers are among the most vulnerable workers, at risk of abuse and exploitation that often happens behind closed doors, making it difficult for them to seek help, and for people on the outside to see what is happening.
Every year, around 15,000 migrant domestic workers, many of them women from Asia and Africa, travel to the UK with their employers to look after their children, care for their elderly parents, clean their houses, and cook for them.
This report documents the abuses and exploitation faced by these migrant domestic workers who travel to the UK with their employers and the challenges they can experience when seeking redress. This report does not, however, address issues faced by migrant domestic workers who arrived in the UK by other means, for instance as asylum seekers, spouses or who are European Economic Area nationals.
While the category of domestic workers in private households as defined by the Home Office also includes drivers and gardeners, the domestic workers interviewed for this report worked inside their employers’ homes as cleaners, nannies, cooks, and/or cared for their employer or a member of their employers’ family.
The report also sets out relevant domestic, European, and international law, which is supposed to safeguard the rights of migrant domestic workers in the UK.
The report finds that some employers subject domestic workers to abusive living and working conditions, including forced labour. Safeguards are inadequate to prevent abuses; to allow those who are abused to escape and find protection; or to hold those responsible to account.
The report also describes how two developments since April 2012 have undermined the British government’s obligations under national, international, and European human rights law to protect migrant domestic workers from employer abuse and provide them with ways to access justice. The first development is a new “tied visa” that eliminates migrant domestic workers’ right to change employer and find other full-time work—often the most feasible way to escape abusive situations; the second development is budget cuts that have limited the ability of migrant domestic workers to seek help, including from employment tribunals.
Under the old (pre-April 2012) visa regime, the charity Kalayaan (the main organization providing assistance to migrant domestic workers in the UK), self-help groups, or other domestic workers were able to provide some assistance to abused workers who sought help because workers did not lose their immigration status by escaping from their employer and they could continue to work legally in the UK, if they found another job. Under the current system, however, there is little that charities and support groups can do for migrant domestic workers unless they are the victims of trafficking and are ready to go through the National Referral Mechanism (established to support victims of trafficking) system once they have escaped from their employer.
Experience from the UK and other countries indicates that the ability to change employers is one of the most practical and efficient ways for domestic workers to escape abusive situations.
Migrant domestic workers who work for diplomats are a particularly vulnerable group because their employers’ diplomatic immunity means they are not subject to national legislation. Before the visa changes, migrant domestic workers working for a diplomat could work for another diplomat in the same mission. Now they can only work for one diplomat and must leave the UK before their employer, or at the same time.
In June 2011, the UK was one of only nine states that did not vote in favor of the International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention—a groundbreaking international treaty that went into force in September 2013 and recognizes domestic workers’ rights to the same labour protections as other workers. The UK partly justified its decision by saying domestic legal protections are sufficient. At that time, migrant domestic workers had the right to change employer, a key protection for them to escape from abusive employers. But even though it removed that right in April 2012, at its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council in September 2012, the UK rejected recommendations by other states to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention.
The UK government claims that safeguards are in place to ensure migrant domestic workers are not abused by their employers. These include requiring that a worker has been with their employer for at least a year before going to the UK, and requiring that both employee and employer sign a declaration of the terms and conditions of their UK employment, theoretically preventing abusive relationships being imported to the UK.
This report shows that these protections are not adequate given migrant domestic workers’ lack of mobility and rights, particularly since the new tied visa was introduced. For example, some workers said their employer told them to sign a document with false information about their salary, time off, and working hours.
Interviewees described a wide range of criminal abuses including forced labour; verbal, physical, and psychological abuse; and confinement. Interviewees described employers locking them in the house and giving them only leftover food. They also described having to share a room with children or sleep in the living or storage room, being denied a mobile phone, and having to speak to family in secret or with their employer present.
The report also documents labour abuses such as excessive working hours, denial of time off, low salaries, and late or non-payment of salaries. The majority of those Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report said they were paid wages which were well below the UK minimum wage.
Ira A., a 38-year-old Filipina, went to the UK in June 2013 with her employers to look after their baby while he was hospitalized. While her promised wage was GB£350 per week, her employers only gave her £135 after one month in London and, deprived of food or toiletries, she had to use the baby’s soap and make sanitary towels from his diapers.
Many interviewees described having their passport confiscated: 23 of 33 migrant domestic workers interviewed said their employer withheld their passport. Maria D., a Filipina domestic worker who went to the UK with her employers from Kuwait in June 2012, said her employers seized her passport in Kuwait and she only learned that she had a six-month visa as an overseas domestic worker when they handed her passport to her on the plane to the UK.
While some migrant domestic workers manage to escape and get help from other domestic workers of their nationality or from charities or support groups, many do not come into contact with those groups and do not know people they can turn to for help—in part due to insufficient information about their rights and relevant laws, and the lack of a mechanism by which they can signal abuse to the authorities without fearing deportation or reprisals from employers.
Elissa D., an Indonesian domestic worker on a visa issued under the new rules who ran away from her Saudi employers, said she wandered for hours before finally meeting another Indonesian domestic worker at a bus stop who helped her. “I had no friends in London.… I was hoping I would meet another Indonesian who could help, who I could talk to. I left at 8 p.m. I only met the other Indonesian at 10 a.m. I just went around with no direction.”
Under the new “tied” visa, implemented in April 2012, migrant domestic workers are now effectively “tied” to their employer and risk becoming undocumented, removal from the UK, and exploitation if they leave an abusive situation. Several migrant domestic workers who had escaped cited fear of police discovering their undocumented status as the main reason they did not file a complaint. But even lack of medical care and fear of police are not enough to compel most migrant domestic workers to return home voluntarily given the pressure they face to support dependents. Meanwhile, abusive employers have even greater scope to mistreat and exploit domestic workers, knowing they cannot leave without becoming undocumented.
Cuts in legal aid since April 2013 for employment and immigration disputes have also hampered the ability of migrant domestic workers to seek redress. The new cuts limit such aid to trafficking victims, but exclude migrant domestic workers who face abuses such as unpaid wages, excessive work hours, or forced labour as defined under international law.
Often, the abuses that Human Rights Watch documented began before migrant domestic workers and their employers arrived in the United Kingdom—mostly in Gulf countries where the highly exploitative kafala (sponsorship) system ties migrant workers to employers by denying them the right to change jobs or sometimes leave the country without employer permission.
The abuses that many interviewees described before arrival, and which Human Rights Watch has extensively documented in other reports, then continued in the absence of checks by British authorities to ensure employers were complying with UK law. Cherryloi M., a Filipina domestic worker who arrived in the UK in May 2013 with her employers, said they had deprived her of adequate food in Qatar before arrival. “I sat with them in restaurants [in London], looking at them eating. It was the same treatment here,” she said.
Human Rights Watch does not claim that all employers mistreat their domestic workers; indeed, it has interviewed domestic workers who were satisfied with their employment conditions. Nor does it dispute the UK government’s right to control its borders. But immigration control cannot override its duty to protect abused and exploited individuals.
The UK has ratified several European and international treaties that obligate it to protect migrant domestic workers from forced labour and exploitation by both agents of the state and private individuals, including employers. These include, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the European Social Charter, the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Forced Labour Convention.
UK domestic law also prohibits forced labour and provides certain guarantees for fair working conditions. The Human Rights Act prohibits forced labour and the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 criminalizes slavery, servitude, and forced or compulsory labour. Kidnapping and false imprisonment are offenses under UK common law. Under Working Time Regulations, workers—including domestic workers—are entitled to uninterrupted time off, paid leave, and at least one day off a week.
The UK should ratify the ILO Domestic Workers Convention and grant domestic workers the same rights and protections as other workers. It should also allow all migrant domestic workers to change employer, whether they work in private or diplomatic households—which the ILO and the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants have referred to as a best practice for protecting and preventing abusive migration. The government should also request that other governments waive the immunity of diplomats from prosecution when a domestic worker filed a complaint in cases where there is prima facie evidence that would warrant investigation by the police.
When issuing visas to the UK, British embassy staff, not private contractors, should meet migrant domestic workers individually (and with an interpreter if necessary), to ensure they are fully aware of their rights in the UK, including to keep their passport with them at all times, the national minimum wage, and time off. UK border officials should also interview domestic workers and give them information, in writing and orally, about their rights in the UK.
In December 2013, the home secretary presented a draft bill on modern slavery that consolidates legislation on the crimes that constitute modern slavery—slavery, servitude, forced labour, and human trafficking. It also increases penalties for those guilty of such crimes and creates an anti-slavery commissioner. The government should see the draft bill as a chance to take additional steps beyond enhanced criminal penalties to strengthen protections for migrant domestic workers, a group that the bill does not specifically mention, but which is vulnerable to abuses that can amount to modern slavery as defined by the UK government.
 At time of writing, the British Pound was worth US$1.66.