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Domestic Servants Who Are Victims of Slavery and Human Trafficking

In July 2020, the city of Leicester experienced a spike in Covid-19 cases. Subsequently, the city was shut down. The outbreak was traced to the city’s garment industry and the thousands of factories that continued to operate during the lockdown. Not only was there little or no social distancing in place, the workers, who were mainly women, were subjected to squalid conditions and paid below the minimum wage. They were effectively modern-day slaves. Slavery and human trafficking is a hidden plague in Europe, and many cases involve people coming to the UK on the Domestic Worker in a Private Household Visa.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (EUAFR) recently produced a report entitled: Protecting migrant workers from exploitation in the EU: workers’ perspectives. It raised concerns about UK legislative gaps, particularly with regards to the Domestic Worker in a Private Household visa, which allows modern slavery and human trafficking to flourish.

The Guardian newspaper detailed interviews conducted by EUAFR researchers:

“…one Filipino maid working in the UK was denied food by her employer and relied on biscuits taken from hotels and eating the children’s leftovers, the report said.

“Undernutrition was the main reason for escaping employers, as workers could no longer survive without food,” the report said of the plight of the domestic workers interviewed in the UK.

A second maid from sub-Saharan Africa said of her experience at the hands of her employer in Britain: “I was holding a hoover. He took that hoover and beat me in the hand. Then I scream and I scream, and the small boy came: ‘Auntie, what is the problem? Are you beating her, daddy? They tell us in school that you are not supposed to beat ladies. Why are you beating auntie?’”

How does human trafficking work?

According to the group Anti-slavery:

“Human trafficking is the process of trapping people through the use of violence, deception, or coercion and exploiting them for financial or personal gain.”

Girls and women, who make up over half (51%) of trafficked peoples, are groomed and forced into prostitution or made to work as domestic servants. Men are trapped in dangerous conditions, used to supply labour for construction sites, farms, and factories.

What often happens is a trafficking gang places an advert stating that young women are needed for a particularly glamorous job such as modeling or working as a hostess in London, Paris, etc. For a fee, say £3,000, transport and housing will be arranged. The victim finds the funds and pays the traffickers (usually a respectable looking agency). However, when she arrives in the country, she finds the job does not exist, but she has to pay off the “extra costs” of her travel, plus her board and food. So, she is sent to a factory, brothel, or put to work as a domestic servant. She has no friends in the UK, no legal right to be in the country, and is threatened with violence against her and/or her family if she complains to the authorities or tries to escape.

Some women are enslaved abroad and brought to the UK on the Domestic Worker in a Private Household Visa. Around 75% of employers are from the Gulf states – where the wealthy often travel to London for business, shopping, medical treatment, or to escape the sweltering summer heat. The countries that make up the Gulf - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar –use a sponsorship system known as ‘kafala’, which ties a migrant’s legal right to be in the country to their employment contract. Therefore, if they try and leave an abusive employer without permission, they can be imprisoned or deported.

In 2012, the government proposed that the visa for overseas domestic workers should be scrapped. However, research showed that this might deter wealthy foreigners from coming to the UK. Instead, the visa was changed so that domestic workers could only stay in the country for six months and could not change employers during that time. This became a recipe for slavery.

Changes to the Domestic Worker in a Private Household Visa

Following the 2012 visa change, research by Kalayaan, a small London-based charity that supports overseas domestic workers in the UK, showed that abuse of domestic workers dramatically intensified. According to an in-depth report in The New Statesman:

“Among workers who registered with the charity between 2012 and 2015, 81 percent of those on the new tied visas were given no time off, against 66 percent of those still on the old system. Two-thirds of workers on tied visas were barred from leaving the house freely (against 41 percent with non-tied visas), more than 30 percent were not paid for their work (against 11 percent) and 14 percent reported physical abuse (against 9 percent). Kalayaan staff identified 64 percent of the ODWs on tied visas as victims of trafficking, meaning that their employers forced or coerced them into coming to the UK with the intention of exploiting them.”

Following the passing of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and a review by James Ewin QC, a barrister, and modern slavery expert, the British government reformed the Domestic Worker in a Private Household Visa. Victims of human trafficking and slavery could change employers and apply to remain in the UK for up to two years.

However, the changes do not go far enough. Many domestic workers brought to the UK have no idea of their legal rights, and their passport is in their employer’s custody. In his report, Mr. Ewins recommended that any foreign domestic worker staying in the UK for more than 42 days should be required to attend a “group information meeting,” and have their rights under UK law explained.

Mr. Ewins wrote in his report:

“This will enable those overseas domestic workers who are victims of abuse to be identified as such — probably to self-identify — and will empower them to take practical self-help steps to leave such abuse and will offer them support in doing so”.

It has been reported that this recommendation will not be implemented.

For these vulnerable people, it appears the British government does not view their rights and voices as a priority. To access support, call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700 or the Salvation Army Human Trafficking helpline on 0300 303 8151. Our experienced immigration solicitors can also provide expert legal advice on your options to pursue legal status in the UK.

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