HR Watch: Migrant domestic workers ‘trapped, abused’ in UK

Rappler.com
Human Rights Watch says the UK government 'is failing' in its duty to protect migrant domestic workers

ABUSE. A Human Rights Watch report said a new visa scheme for migrant domestic workers has made them vulnerable to abuse in the UK. Screen shot from Human Rights Watch

MANILA, Philippines – Migrant domestic workers brought into the United Kingdom by their employers are suffering serious abuses including forced labor, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on Monday, March 31.

In its 58-report, “Hidden Away: Abuses against Migrant Domestic Workers in the UK,” HRW said the UK government is not doing enough to protect vulnerable workers, and that recent changes in the country’s immigration rules have made it harder for them to escape abuse.

“The report finds that some employers subject domestic workers to abusive living and working conditions, including forced labor. Safeguards are inadequate to prevent abuses; to allow those who are abused to escape and find protection; or to hold those responsible to account,” HRW said in a summary of its report. 

Izza Leghtas, Western Europe researcher at HRW, said it is “scandalous that in modern Britain migrant domestic workers are subject to such appalling abuses. But instead of protecting these workers, the system makes it harder for them escape.”

HRW said that every year, some 15,000 migrant domestic workers arrive in the UK. The report documents various forms of abuse endured by migrant domestic workers who had worked for their employers in the Gulf area and had already experienced abuse by these employers.

The abuse include confiscation of passports, confinement to the home, physical and psychological abuse, extended working hours with no rest days, and meager or non-payment of wages. 

The report also said that the UK government has failed to live up to its obligations under international law to protect migrant domestic workers and give those who suffer abuse access to justice.

HRW conducted research for the report from July 2013 to February 2014, and interviewed 33 migrant domestic workers in London. 

Seventeen of those interviewed were from the Philippines, while the rest were from Morocco, India, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Uganda. Most of them fled from their employers and sought help from charities, self-help groups, or other domestic workers and reported a form of mistreatment, HRW said.

‘Tied’ visa promotes abuse

HRW cited as a source of abuse the  “tied visa” implemented in the UK in April 2012, which prohibited migrant domestic workers to change employer once in the UK despite the recommendations of parliament, nongovernmental organizations, and United Nations experts. 

Under the terms of the new tied visa, overseas domestic workers cannot legally leave their employer and find new work, effectively “tying” the workers to their employers and “risk becoming undocumented, removal from the UK, and exploitation if they leave an abusive situation,” HRW said.

It said that under the scheme, “abusive employers have even greater scope to mistreat and exploit domestic workers, knowing they cannot leave without becoming undocumented.”

“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.  It’s abhorrent that anyone should be tied into abuse in this way,” Leghtas said.

HRW also said that since April 2013, there have been cuts in legal aid in the UK for employment and immigration disputes, which have “hampered the ability of migrant domestic workers to seek redress.”

“The new cuts limit such aid to trafficking victims, but exclude migrant domestic workers who face abuses such as unpaid wages, excessive work hours, or forced labour as defined under international law,” it said.

Workers interviewed by HRW said they are forced to work up to 18 hours daily for weeks without breaks, are not fed properly and live off leftovers, are barred from owning a mobile phone or contacting their families and leaving their employers’ homes unaccompanied. 

Some were paid wages as little as 100 pounds (US$160) per month, which were sometimes even withheld. 

‘Locked’

The domestic workers look after the children of them employers, care for their elderly parents, and clean and cook for them.

Sarah S, a Filipina domestic worker on a new tied visa to London, told HRW that she was “locked” inside the house and was forced to live on her employers’ leftovers. 

Andrea N, from the Philippines, traveled to London with her employer, a diplomat from a Gulf country.  She took care of his children, and cooked, and cleaned seven days a week, with no day off, from 6 am to 11 p.m. every night.

TRAPPED. A Filipina worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch shows the area where she used to work. Screenshot from HRW video, "UK: Domestic Workers Trapped and Abused."

Ira A, another Filipino, went to the UK in June 2013 with her employers, and was promised 350 pounds (US$560) per week, but she was only paid 135 pounds ($215) per month, sent directly to her family in the Philippines. 

“Deprived of food or toiletries, she had to use the baby’s soap and make sanitary towels from his diapers,” HRW said.

Farah Y, from Morocco, said she was the only domestic worker in the house of a diplomat that had 9 bathrooms, 9 bedrooms, 3 living rooms, a garden, and a swimming pool. Follow Moroccan Zahia M had only one or two hours of sleep since she too was on call 24/7.

HRW said it had interviewed domestic workers who were satisfied with their conditions, and that it does not dispute the UK government’s right to control its borders “but immigration control cannot override its duty to protect abused and exploited individuals.”

UK gov’t lacking

HRW is urging the UK government to broaden the scope of a bill presented by British Home Secretary Theresa May in December 2013. The proposed measure seeks to increase penalties for slavery, servitude, forced labor, and human trafficking from 14 years to life imprisonment – but does make any reference to the plight of domestic workers. 

A parliamentary committee is reviewing the draft bill and is due with its report in early April.

HRW said a broader scope of the bill would 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, it said. 

The group said UK laws do not provide enough protection to migrant works to prevent abuse and that the UK government has not ratified the International Labor Organization (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention, a groundbreaking international treaty which affords the same rights to domestic workers as other workers. 

HRW also said that “as a party to a range of international human rights treaties it has ratified, the UK is obligated to protect migrant domestic workers from abuse from both agents of the state and from private individuals.”

“The UK government is failing in its duty to protect migrant domestic workers, who all too often are victims of horrific hidden abuse. 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,” Leghtas said. – Rappler.com

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