A Kalayaan campaigner protests outside Parliament. Photo: Avril Sharp/Kalayaan
Joanna escaped her gilded prison only when the cleaners realised she had no room key of her own. Brought to the UK by her employer, Joanna was locked in the upmarket west London serviced apartment at night. Each morning she was taken to the renowned private hospital where her employers’ elderly father was receiving treatment.
Joanna – not her real name – had been hired as a domestic carer to look after the sick man in Dubai. Having received healthcare training in the Philippines, she was tasked with his care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In Dubai, she would sleep in the same room as the man, who would hit her when she tried to administer his insulin injections.
Now in the UK, spending 12 hours a day in the hospital, Joanna felt powerless to ask the busy doctors and nurses for help, knowing they were being paid by her employer. She had been told she would be paid a fair wage for her labour and planned to send money back to support her eight children still living in the Philippines. But since arriving in Britain she’d been paid just £20.
“I didn’t think to run because I am honest. I had done nothing wrong, why should I run?” she says, “I have an employer, they should pay me.”
But the truth of her situation hit home when the apartment’s cleaners intervened. “They told me: ‘This is not right. This should not happen in the UK.’”
On their encouragement, she called the police, hoping the authorities would help her. When the police arrived, they offered to call Joanna a taxi. But she knew no one in the UK. She had nowhere else to go.
“I thought this was a good country, but I had been abused for two months and I thought: ‘why are they not helping me?’” she recalls.
Joanna took the taxi, paid for with the only £20 she had. Feeling guilty for short-changing the taxi driver, she fled to the home of a Filipino woman her mother vaguely knew.
In theory, anyone working in the UK — temporarily or permanently, from cleaners to CEOs — has the legal right to a safe working environment, free from abuse and coercion. Plus, of course, the right to be paid at least the minimum wage.
Some 20,000 people, predominantly women, are brought to the UK each year on overseas domestic worker (ODW) visas, largely by employers from Middle Eastern countries. They work as cleaners, nannies, carers and ‘help’ in private homes. Living and working behind closed doors, these women are vulnerable to exploitation, have few options to demand fair pay, and many are subject to abuse tantamount to slavery.
ODW visas were introduced in 1998 after years of campaigning by unions and workers themselves. It meant they could change employer, apply for extensions, bring their children and spouses with them if they wished, and eventually gain citizenship.
But this April marks 11 years since then-home secretary Theresa May revoked the ODW visa concession as part of her “hostile environment” for migrants, preventing people on these visas from changing employers or renewing their visa. This meant their legal status in the UK was tied to their employer and whatever circumstances or treatment that came with it.
An independent review of visa conditions in 2016 did prompt the government to allow all migrant domestic workers to change employer, but only within the dates of their six-month visas. Given that these are issued before a worker sets foot on British soil, there is only a small window of opportunity.
Avril Sharp, who works on policy, campaigns and case work at migration charity Kalayaan, says the visas still effectively “tie” the worker to their employer, because “the ability to safely change employer is meaningless in practice”.
Running away from an abusive employer puts domestic workers on tied visas in an immensely difficult situation. They will have just months left to find a new employer to sponsor them, or face becoming undocumented and, in the eyes of this government, illegal.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to protecting migrant domestic workers from abuse and exploitation, and victims of modern slavery are given tailored support to help rebuild their lives through the National Referral Mechanism [the UK’s framework for identifying potential victims of modern slavery].
“We have already made a number of changes to the Overseas Domestic Worker immigration route to better protect workers. However, we are not complacent and we will continue efforts to ensure that no worker suffers abuse at the hands of their employer.”
According to a 2014 survey conducted by Kalayaan, almost three-quarters of workers who were “tied” to their employer by their visas were not allowed to leave the house unsupervised. Based in a community hall in a church surrounded by some of west London’s most affluent mansions, Kalayaan has been supporting migrant domestic workers for 36 years.
Another former domestic worker who is also originally from the Philippines, Julie came to the UK with her employer from Saudi Arabia in summer 2016. Tasked with caring for their children, she was forced to sleep next to a freezing air-conditioning unit, which made her whole body numb. While food and drink was provided for the children, none was provided for Julie. Her pay was also withheld, giving her no means to buy food to sustain herself.
“I could feel my body failing,” she said. “I took fruit from the bowl in the hotel for something to eat.” After two weeks of this treatment, Julie ran away, seeking refuge in a church where they put her in contact with Kalayaan.
“We want to prevent abuse from happening,” Sharp says. “And how do you do that? By giving people options and rights so vulnerable migrant workers can either negotiate with their employer or they can take steps to leave that employer and safely go and work somewhere else.”
Joanna now has refugee status and works at an NHS care home in Devon, where she says she is very happy. Julie, too, has received refugee status, and works as a private carer in north London where she says she is treated well.
There seems to be a bitter irony: many of the women the case workers at Kalayaan meet desperately want to leave an abusive, wealthy employer to work legally as a carer, while NHS care is simultaneously on its knees, desperate to recruit more carers.
The UK is experiencing a crisis in health and social care, with Age UK estimating that 2.6 million people in England aged over 50 are unable to get care. Huge shortfalls in the number of social care staff and care home beds mean elderly or disabled people are seeing their health conditions worsen — and personal liberty curtailed — without a trained carer to support them in daily tasks.
Carers were added to the Shortage Occupation List in February last year, which allows organisations to sponsor someone from overseas to come to the UK to fill the role. Skills for Care, the industry body for carers, found there were 1.79 million posts in adult social care in the year to March 2022, of which 165,000 were vacant, according to the BBC.
But, of course, this isn’t an issue for the wealthy elite who bring their own domestic help or carers with them when visiting the UK. What these workers need is improved legislation to give them the freedom to leave exploitative or abusive situations by renewing their visa to work elsewhere. Until this happens, domestic workers far from home will continue to be put in vulnerable situations behind the closed doors of some of Britain’s wealthiest homes.
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This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.
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