A domestic worker holds up her UK Overseas Domestic Worker visa. Following changes to the immigration rules in April 2012, workers entering the UK on this visa are not permitted to change employer, making them more vulnerable to abuse.

Wealthy families who come to the UK may bring with them domestic workers who work for them in their home country – often women who raise their children, clean their homes and cook their meals. In a move to cut down on immigration, two years ago the UK tied domestic workers’ visas to their employer. But in forbidding these women to change employers, even in abusive circumstances, this policy has the unintended consequence of forcing some women either to endure terrible situations or to go underground. The UK has pledged to combat “modern day slavery,” and this week, as part of this effort, a special parliamentary committee is calling on the government to change this visa policy. For her report on abuses against migrant domestic workers in the UK, “Hidden Away,”Human Rights Watch researcher Izza Leghtas took on the difficult task of finding these elusive women and reporting their stories.

You had a tough time finding the women you spoke with. Why is that?

Many domestic workers in the UK are brought over from countries where abuse of these women is rife, and the abuse continues here. We found cases where their employers have literally forbidden them to leave the house, and they live behind locked doors. In other cases they aren’t allowed to go out without their employer, or to speak to other people. 

Additionally, it’s hard to find domestic workers who have run away from their employers, as under the current system they become undocumented immigrants once they leave their employer and are hiding from the authorities.

I found most of the women I spoke with through Kalayaan, the main organization in the UK that assists migrant domestic workers, the self-help groups Justice for Domestic Workers and the Filipino Domestic Workers Association, or by word of mouth.

What types of abuses did you find?

I found abuses against domestic workers in the UK that are similar to what Human Rights Watch has found in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, and other Gulf States. Their employers had confiscated their passports, didn’t allow them to go outside, and had forbidden them from owning a mobile phone and from contacting their families. They are paid very little, as little as US$160 per month, and in some cases not paid at all.  And at the same time are worked to the bone, 7 days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day, sometimes being awakened in the middle of the night if their employer wanted something to eat.

It shocked me to hear some of the women say they had gone hungry living in London. Their wealthy employers who lived in expensive London neighbourhoods wouldn’t give them food. They would live off bread or leftovers. It’s unbelievable.

Did the story of anyone you interviewed stick with you personally?

I heard many awful stories, but Zahia stood out. She was traumatized by what she had been through, but she also exuded this great, personal warmth.

Zahia had only been in the UK with her Saudi employer for a few months before running away. Despite the winter cold, Zahia told me her employer refused to heat her room or give her a warm blanket. She worked around the clock, often waking up at 5 or 6 a.m. to cook their breakfasts and would work until 1 or 2 the next morning. She said the family shouted at her, laughed at her and made fun of her.

When we met, she didn’t know what to do. She felt tremendous pressure to send her family money, like most of the women I spoke to. But if she was deported to her home country, Morocco, she wouldn’t be able to help them. She was afraid of the police and of being sent home.

How did the UK get here?

They switched from a visa policy considered a good practice to a policy that ties domestic workers to their employers. The UK gives out about 15,000 such visas a year, although this number extends beyond domestic workers to include cooks, drivers, etc. The system was designed to stem the number of unskilled immigrants who could stay in the country.

But by not letting domestic workers change employers, the visa binds these women into an abusive situation. If they run away, they become undocumented immigrants, which can be terrifying for them. Only last summer, the UK government paid people to drive trucksaround the country with the message “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest” on the side, next to a picture of handcuffs. Granted, the trucks were pulled off the road after one week, but they still reflect the country’s political climate around immigration. And it explains why these women hide from authorities rather than seeking help.

What should the UK do to help these domestic workers?

First, the government should heed the report published this week by the parliamentary committee, which recommends that the government should restore the rights of domestic workers to change their employer while they’re in the UK. It’s the best way for domestic workers to escape from abusive situations and work legally, instead of going underground, and sends employers the message that their employee can leave if they don’t treat them well. Second, the UK should ratify the International Labour Organization’s domestic worker convention, which gives these women the same legal protection as other workers. The UK is one of two European Union members – the other is the Czech Republic – that didn’t vote in favor of it in June 2011, in part because the government said it already had the means to protect domestic workers.

Should women like Zahia be allowed to stay in the UK?

The UK has the authority to  protect its borders and regulate immigration. But it also has a duty to protect those within its borders. Linking these visas to one employer leaves women like Zahia with a terrible choice: endure abuse or go underground where they are vulnerable to further abuse and exploitation. Going home voluntarily is not a real option given the pressure to support their families financially. Workers like Zahia should feel safe and confident to go to the authorities if they have been mistreated. That doesn’t necessarily mean having the right to stay permanently in the UK, but it does mean making sure that migrant domestic workers can leave their employer if they are abused, without breaking the rules. The government says it is determined to end the type of abuse these workers face, and making this simple change would make a big difference.