March 31, 2014

IV. Insufficient Safeguards before Coming to the UK

Many of the 33 migrant domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had received inadequate information from UK embassies about the terms and conditions of their employment and their rights in the UK. This is despite the fact that all migrant domestic workers are supposed to receive an information leaflet (see appendix) when their visa is issued, setting out the rights and obligations. Several told us that during the visa application process they just gave their fingerprints, had their photograph taken, or signed documents they did not read.  Several others said they did not know what the terms of their visa were, whether on the old or the new one.

The outsourcing of visa services in recent years may have added to the problem of insufficient information provided to applicants. A Home Office official told Human Rights Watch that visa services are outsourced and received by private contractors, not by UK embassy staff. “They’re contracted to hand them the leaflet, they’re not contracted to explain it to them.… They’re not allowed to give advice.”[121]

Research by Human Rights Watch also indicates that UK border officials are failing in at least some cases to question migrant domestic workers without their employer present and verify that the domestic workers themselves hold their passport. Five domestic workers entering the UK under the new visa rules told Human Rights Watch their employer held their passport at the airport and seven said they were not asked any questions by border officials. While the Home Office Guidance to Frontline Staff, which includes Border Force staff, states that withholding of passports is a common indicator of domestic servitude and calls on Border Force staff to be “particularly alert” to the signs of trafficking, including trafficking for domestic servitude, it does not explicitly instruct frontline staff to systematically conduct individual interviews with those entering the UK’s borders or ensure that they hold their own passports.[122]

The following cases are illustrative of the problems outlined above.

Cherryloi M., a domestic worker who entered the UK under the new visa rules in May 2013, told Human Rights Watch she had been interviewed alone at the British embassy in Qatar but her employer had told her to lie about the terms of her employment. She only found out about the six month time limit on her visa once she was in the UK. Her employer hadn’t told her how much time they would be spending in the UK. “The husband told me to lie, [he said] otherwise they won’t give you a visa. I lied.”[123]

Maria D., a Filipina domestic worker who came to the UK under the new visa rules, told Human Rights Watch that at the British embassy in Kuwait city, she just gave her fingerprints. Her male employer’s sister gave her papers that she had to sign quickly. “I don’t know why there was no British person to talk to me,” she said. Her employers kept her passport. She found out she had a six month visa when she filled out her landing card on the plane to the UK. Her male employer presented all the passports to the border officials, including Maria’s, when going through UK passport control at the airport. Maria D. told Human Rights Watch that no one asked her any questions.[124]

Ana V., a Filipina domestic worker on a new visa, told Human Rights Watch that at the British embassy in Qatar she signed a document stating that her salary would be 1,500 Qatari Rials (about £250) per month. Her salary in Qatar was 900 Qatari Rials, but when she asked her employer for that amount, she said, her employer told her: “No, no, no. That’s only for the embassy. I will increase you but not to 1,500.” It is unclear why the UK contractors to whom the visa processing had been outsourced would have accepted documentation indicating a monthly wage below the UK legal minimum. Ana V. told Human Rights Watch the document also said she would have one day off per week, but in the 11 days she spent in London before running away, she did not have a day off and was not allowed out of the apartment alone.[125]

Elissa I., a 35-year-old from Indonesia, worked for her former employers in Saudi Arabia before going with them to the UK for six months in 2012, and again in January 2013 on a six month visa.[126] She told Human Rights Watch that in Saudi Arabia she started working at 7 a.m. and usually finished at midnight. She had no day off, only went out if she was with her employers, and her employers kept her passport locked. She was paid 1,000 Saudi Riyals (about £160 per month). Elissa I. said that both times she went to apply for a visa, no one asked her any questions. She said:

I gave my fingerprints and signed some documents. They were in English. I came with both of my employers. My male employer went to the reception. He’s the one who spoke to them. I waited until he called me to give my fingerprints…. Whenever I had documents I just signed them without filling in the information. My employer did that for me.… From what I know I had six months [on the visa]. I just heard when they talked about it.[127]

She said she found the work in London even harder than in Saudi Arabia. In the morning and afternoon she did housework, then went to the hospital where her employer was being treated, and stayed there until nighttime, sometimes spending the whole night in the hospital.

Once in the UK, there are no mechanisms in place to check whether the statement of terms and conditions presented by the employer during the visa application is applied. A Home Office official told Human Rights Watch that the government “does not have the resources to follow 15,000 overseas domestic workers” to see if they are treated well.[128]

[121] Human Rights Watch meeting with UK Home Office officials, London, January 29, 2014.

[122] Home Office, “Victims of human trafficking: guidance for frontline staff,” (accessed February 26, 2014).

[123] Human Rights Watch interview with Cherryloi (not her real name), August 31, 2013.

[124] Human Rights Watch interview with Maria D. (not her real name), December 8, 2013.

[125] Human Rights Watch interview with Ana V. (not her real name), January 26, 2014.

[126] Human Rights Watch interview with Elissa I. (not her real name), December 13, 2013.

[127] Ibid.

[128] Human Rights Watch meeting with UK Home Office officials, London, January 29, 2014.