I have spent many hours listening to women brought to the UK by their wealthy employers to clean and cook for them and look after their children. The stories I heard were unworthy of modern Britain: women forced to work day and night without breaks, deprived of food, locked in the apartment while the employers were out, called “dog” or “animal” on a regular basis, and paid very little or not at all.
No one should have to endure such treatment. But changes to UK visa rules in April 2012 removed the right of these women to change employers - however much they suffer. Those who run away from such abuse become undocumented migrants, paving the way to deportation.
With her Modern Slavery Bill, presented to parliament today, Home Secretary Theresa May could have changed this. But, she didn’t.
In April 2014, a special parliamentary committee looking into the new bill recommended that the government restore the right for these workers to change employer, having found that the tied visa “institutionalises their abuse.” But the government’s response today makes it clear that it is more concerned about the politics of migration than protecting victims.
It refuses to restore this right, claiming that “it is not in the government’s policy to facilitate low skilled migration to the UK” and that adequate safeguards are already in place. Yet a Human Rights Watch report published in March documented serious abuses against these workers, including forced labor, and showed that the so-called safeguards fail to protect them. Research from Kalayaan, the leading charity working with migrant domestic workers in the UK, suggests that workers under the tied visa suffer more abuse than those who were able to change employer.
The facts are clear: as long as migrant domestic workers are tied to one employer, as long as they risk deportation as irregular migrants by running away, these women will struggle to escape abuse. The system also undermines the government’s own aims to prosecute and punish perpetrators. How likely is it that a victim who has broken the immigration rules would go to a police station to report an abusive employer?
It is not too late to protect these vulnerable workers. The Modern Slavery Bill will be accompanied by an action plan. The government could commit in the action plan to change the immigration rules, restoring the right to change employer, which need not carry the right to permanent residence. If the Home Secretary is truly committed to helping victims of forced labor, she knows what to do.