The message couldn’t be clearer. In a report published today, the parliamentary committee tasked with reviewing the UK government’s draft Modern Slavery Bill calls on the government to immediately restore the right for migrant domestic workers to change their employer, having found that “tying migrant domestic workers to their employer institutionalises their abuse.”
Two years ago, as part of broader efforts to reduce immigration, The United Kingdom removed the possibility for migrant domestic workers who accompanied their employers to the UK to work for someone else – effectively trapping them in abusive situations. In a report published last week, Human Rights Watch documented the serious abuses these workers faced, including forced labour.
What the UK government calls “modern day slavery” includes the existing criminal offenses of slavery, servitude, human trafficking, and forced labour. According to Theresa May, the Home Secretary, addressing it is a personal priority for her and she plans for the new law to be “the first of its kind in Europe.”
Domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that their employers had confiscated their passports, forbidden them from going out, forced them to work around the clock, and paid them a fraction of the UK minimum wage, if they were paid at all. Some weren’t even given food or allowed to use a mobile phone.
Having a visa tied to their employer leaves abused worker with a terrible choice – continue to endure abuse so they can send money home to their families, or run away and become undocumented migrants, fearful of forced removal and vulnerable to further exploitation.
The women I spoke to, most of whom worked in the Gulf States before arriving in the UK, told me that the abuses they had suffered at the hands of their employers in the Gulf simply continued – and sometimes became worse – after arriving in the UK. The tied visa sends a message to abusive employers that in the UK that it’s business as usual.
Theresa May can change this. She can show employers that as soon as they set foot in the UK, the rights of domestic workers will be protected and they will be free to change their employerif they are mistreated. The question is, will she?