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I was abused, bullied and left in limbo as a migrant domestic worker. I'm proud of myself for surviving

Friday 5 April marks 12 years since Theresa May's government revoked the Overseas Domestic Worker visa as part of the hostile environment policy in 2012. Marigold Balquen shares her story

Migrant domestic workers

Migrant domestic workers gather to fight for their rights. Image: The Voice of Domestic Workers

Back home in the Philippines, life was very tough. I’m a college graduate and I worked as an admin assistant, but the salary was not enough. We were living in poverty and I needed to find a solution to support my family. My mother went to Australia to work as a domestic worker and I decided to do the same, leaving home for Saudi Arabia in 2007. 

This employer in Saudi Arabia was exploitative and abusive, but I had to continue working for them due to my family’s financial situation. They first brought me to the UK in 2009 and forced me to work as a nanny and housekeeper for not one, but three families, living in central London.

I worked long hours without any days off and my bed was under the dining table on the floor, so it was freezing cold. They only let me eat leftover food and if there was none, I had nothing to eat. My employer also confiscated my passport, so I had no identification documents. 

There came a point in 2013 when I decided I had to leave, because I couldn’t bear it anymore. Yet I couldn’t do this easily — I was forced to run away. Just a year earlier, in April 2012, the British government changed immigration rules as part of the hostile environment policy. This change revoked the Overseas Domestic Worker Visa, which had previously granted employment rights to domestic workers. With these new changes, migrant domestic workers like myself completely lost our basic rights, including the right to work, the right to change employers, and the right to settle in the UK. 

Not only did these changes mean that I was trapped with my exploitative employer for so long; it also meant that the moment I escaped, I became undocumented. This situation was a huge barrier to me living a normal life. I was always on the move, living in different places, and living in fear because I was vulnerable without the proper documentation, therefore at risk of being arrested, detained and deported.

I was so lucky to find The Voice of Domestic Workers, a campaigning organisation and support network for migrant domestic workers, through social media in 2015. It was here that I learned about my rights and gained confidence and empowerment.

This was so important because, in 2018, I was reported by somebody in the building where I was living, and was arrested by immigration officers. They treated and interrogated me as if I were a criminal. I was forced to apply into the National Referral Mechanism, which is a framework to identify whether or not I would be considered a victim of modern slavery and trafficking

This system is a broken one. It was only in January this year that I finally received a positive conclusive grounds decision on my case from the National Referral Mechanism, after years of waiting. This has meant six years of not having the right to work, being stuck in limbo and unable to visit my family back home in the Philippines.

Even with this decision, the uncertainty is not over, as it only enables me to stay and work in the UK for two years. After that, I don’t know what options I have. Because of everything that has happened, I have not been able to go back to the Philippines and see my family since I left 17 years ago. 

Now, with The Voice of Domestic Workers, I rescue other migrant domestic workers who are trapped with their abusive employers, just as I was. In 2023 alone, we did 57 rescues, and so far this year, we’ve done 15. As time passes, I see how the people that we have rescued grow from being timid and traumatised to gaining confidence and rebuilding their lives. I know the feeling, because I’ve been there myself. When I think about the experience of being undocumented, being bullied and being abused, I am so proud of myself for surviving it all. 

Reinstating the pre-2012 Overseas Domestic Worker visa would change our lives as migrant domestic workers. The British government needs to hear our call and return our stolen rights. We need the right to change our employers, to renew our visa, to settle in the UK, alongside the other rights we once had. The majority of migrant domestic workers are not trafficking victims. We can work, and we are workers. Reinstating the visa is the least the government can do to support workers like me, our families, and our futures. The UK needs us.

Marigold Balquen is a migrant domestic worker and a spokesperson for The Voice Domestic Workers. She joined The Voice of Domestic Workers in 2015 and has been involved in rescuing fellow domestic workers from exploitation as well as representing the organisation in parliament. The Voice of Domestic Workers were featured in the Big Issue’s Top 100 Changemakers for 2024.

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