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.

(London) – The United Kingdom House of Lords should amend a draft law on “modern slavery” to include protections from abuse for migrant domestic workers, Human Rights Watch said today. The upper chamber of the UK parliament is scheduled to begin its review of the bill on November 17, 2014.

The Modern Slavery Bill aims to tackle forced labor, but despite recommendations from three parliamentary reviews it does not address a visa system that effectively ties migrant domestic workers to their employers and contributes to their abuse. Human Rights Watch research shows that many domestic workers face high levels of abuse, including forced labor, while working in the UK.

“The House of Lords should end a visa system that facilitates forced labor on UK soil,” said Izza Leghtas, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Despite its good intentions, this bill excludes desperately needed protection for a group of extremely vulnerable workers.”

The government removed migrant domestic workers’ right to change employers in April 2012 as part of a broader effort to limit immigration. If workers leave their employer, they lose the right to be in the UK. Since the change, research by Human Rights Watch and the charity Kalayaan has revealed that the tied visas have led to serious abuse against these workers. Many said they were under pressure to provide for their family back home and were afraid of contacting the authorities once they escaped, for fear of being removed from the UK.

Women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said employers had confiscated the women’s passports, forced them to work for up to 18 hours a day with no breaks and no day off, locked them in the home, and not paid them or given them enough food. Most had accompanied employers from the Gulf to clean, cook, and look after their children in the UK.

Human Rights Watch research found that measures in place in the UK to prevent abuse are inadequate. While the UK government requires employers and employees before they arrive to sign written terms and conditions of employment including a salary at or above the UK minimum wage, there is no mechanism to ensure compliance.

Domestic workers must have worked for their employer for at least a year before coming to the UK, but many workers Human Rights Watch interviewed said that their employer had abused them before they arrived and that they faced the same or worse abuse in the UK. They also said they had not known their rights in the UK when they arrived.

In a report published in April 2014, a parliamentary committee tasked with reviewing the first draft of the Modern Slavery Bill found that “tying migrant domestic workers to their employer institutionalizes their abuse,” and urged the government to restore the right of migrant domestic workers to change employers. But the government did not address the visa system in its draft bill and has refused to restore their right to change employers. A review panel led by Member of Parliament Frank Field had also, in December 2013, recommended the restoration of domestic workers’ right to change employers.

In November 2014, parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) said it regarded the removal of the right to change employers “as a backward step in the protection of migrant domestic workers, particularly as the pre-2012 regime had been cited internationally as good practice.” The JCHR recommended an amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill to reinstate the pre-2012 protections for migrant domestic workers by reversing the visa changes.

Domestic workers Human Rights Watch interviewed in London in October 2014 confirmed the pattern of abuse Human Rights Watch found in its earlier research, and the fear of the police once they escaped from their employer.

Jane E., a domestic worker from the Philippines whose name was changed, as were others, for their protection, told Human Rights Watch she had been abused while working for her Qatari employer on a tied visa in the UK. She said she worked 17 hours a day, seven days per week, with no breaks or time off, and was not allowed out alone. Her employer sent her salary of less than US$200 a month directly to her family in the Philippines. “[My employer] hit me, pulled my clothes, swore at me, almost every day,” Jane E. said. “It was the same [as in Qatar].”

After she escaped, with no money and no passport, she said she stayed with acquaintances and didn’t go out for three months for fear of being found by the police.

Delia S., also from the Philippines, said she came to the UK with her employers from a Gulf country on a tied visa. She said her employers paid her US$650 per month in the Gulf and that before they came to the UK, they paid two months in advance at that rate. That was considerably less than the US$350 a week promised on the visa application. She said she worked from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., six days a week, as she did in the Gulf.

“I asked for £20 [US$30] per week for food,” she said. “They laughed and said that’s too much. I stole from the fridge, like a thief. I was ashamed because for the first time in my life I stole food.” Delia S. ran away without her passport, which her employer kept from her, including while they went through the UK border.

Passport confiscation is an indicator of forced labor and trafficking, and border officials should ensure that domestic workers, not their employers, hold their passports as they enter the UK. “I’m afraid because maybe the police will catch me. I have no papers to show,” Delia S. said.

“The tied visa means that even those who do manage to escape abuse are unlikely to come forward, allowing abusive employers to act with impunity,” Leghtas said. “By amending the Modern Slavery Bill, the House of Lords can help give abused workers the confidence to go to the police.”