(London) – Migrant domestic workers accompanying their employers to the United Kingdom are being subjected to serious abuses including forced labor, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The UK government is doing far too little to protect vulnerable workers, and recent changes to UK immigration rules make it harder for workers to flee abuse, the report found.
“It’s scandalous that in modern Britain migrant domestic workers are subject to such appalling abuses,” said Izza Leghtas, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But instead of protecting these workers, the system makes it harder for them escape.”
The 58-page report, “Hidden Away: Abuses against Migrant Domestic Workers in the UK,” documents the confiscation of passports, confinement to the home, physical and psychological abuse, extremely long working hours with no rest days, and very low wages or non-payment of wages. The report also shows the UK government has failed to live up to its obligations under international law to protect migrant domestic workers and enable them to access justice if they are mistreated.
In April 2012, the UK abolished the right of migrant domestic workers to change employer once they are in the UK, against the recommendations of parliament, nongovernmental organizations, and UN experts. Under the terms of the new ‘tied visa,’ overseas domestic workers cannot legally leave their employer and find new work, meaning those abused can become trapped.
“Workers who are mistreated now face a horrendous choice: either endure the terrible abuse, or escape and become undocumented migrants, where of course they are much more vulnerable to further abuse and exploitation,” said Leghtas. “It’s abhorrent that anyone should be tied into abuse in this way.”
Because domestic helpers work in private households, much of the abuse takes place behind closed doors. Workers told Human Rights Watch of working up to 18 hours per day for weeks on end without breaks, not being fed properly and surviving off leftovers, being forbidden from possessing a mobile phone or contacting their own families, and being unable to ever leave their employers’ homes unaccompanied. Some were paid wages as little as £100 (US$160) per month and sometimes even these meagre salaries were withheld.
The British Home Secretary Theresa May is bringing forward a modern slavery bill to tackle serious labor abuses in the UK. In December 2013, May presented a draft bill that would increase penalties for slavery, servitude, forced labor, and human trafficking from 14 years to life imprisonment. But the bill makes no reference at all to the plight of domestic workers. A parliamentary committee is reviewing the draft bill and is due to publish a report in early April.
Human Rights Watch is urging the government to broaden the scope of the bill to ensure appropriate protections for migrant domestic workers, including the right to change employer. Restoring this right is vital to help combat abuse against this very vulnerable group of workers, Human Rights Watch said.
Every year, some 15,000 migrant domestic workers arrive in the UK. Many of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch were women from Asia or Africa who previously worked for their employers in the Gulf, and had already experienced abuse there at the hands of their employers.
Human Rights Watch has documented serious and widespread abuses against migrant domestic workers in the Gulf where gaps in labor laws and the restrictive sponsorship (kafala) system contribute to exploitation. The kafala system ties a domestic worker’s visa to her employer, and gives employers control over whether the worker can change jobs and, in some places, exit the country. The UK’s abolition of the right to change employer risks sending a signal to employers from the Gulf that they can continue to treat their workers as they did under the kafala system, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch also found that the measures the UK government has in place to prevent abuse are inadequate. The government requires workers to have been employed for at least a year by their employer before coming to the UK. However, many migrant domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in London said their employers had subjected them to abuse in the Gulf and treated them the same, or sometimes even worse, in the UK. Migrant domestic workers are often unable to access redress mechanisms in the Gulf – because their employers confiscate their passports and heavily restrict their movements – so prior employment with a family overseas is not a reliable indicator that no abuse has occurred.
The UK government also requires written terms and conditions of employment to be signed by both the employer and the employee, including the obligation to pay UK minimum wage. But there is no mechanism to monitor whether those terms are respected.
Under domestic, European, and international human rights law, the UK must protect migrant domestic workers from abuse, both from government officials and from private individuals. But recent cuts to legal aid deny victims who have not been recognized as possible victims of trafficking free legal assistance, even if they are victims of forced labor.
The UK government has also refused to ratify a groundbreaking international treaty which affords the same rights to domestic workers as other workers. In June 2011, the UK was one of only nine countries that did not vote in favor of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention. Human Rights Watch is also recommending that the UK ensure that domestic workers are made fully aware of their rights in the UK when they apply for visas, and that employers understand their duty to treat employees in accordance with UK law.
“The UK government is failing in its duty to protect migrant domestic workers, who all too often are victims of horrific hidden abuse,” Leghtas said. “If it’s serious about ending what it calls modern day slavery, the government should recognize just how vulnerable these workers are and give them the protection they deserve.”