Opinion

The hostile environment has failed. We need a new deal for migrant domestic workers

Successive Tory governments have failed to learn the lessons about their failures to reduce numbers by reducing migrant workers’ rights

Theresa May stood at a lectern

The hostile environment it is a set of policies introduced in 2012 by then-home secretary Theresa May, with the aim of making life unbearably difficult in the UK for immigrants. Image: 10 Downing Street / Flickr

Labour is looking increasingly likely to form the next government, and one of the major complaints is that there was little detail in their manifesto and their plans for the country aren’t clear. That’s certainly the case on reforming the immigration system, which they say they will do but give no further detail on.

But workers’ rights are one area where there is a bit more information. Labour’s New Deal for Workers includes a lot of positive changes, and some parts of it, if applied without discrimination to all migrant workers, could make a huge positive difference for migrants who do essential jobs. But if we continue to let the most vulnerable migrant workers fall through the gaps, our unequal labour market will continue to produce poor conditions and low pay.

Migrant domestic workers are often invisible in the conversation about workers’ rights, but they have been at the sharpest end of a 12-year failed Tory agenda to cut migrant numbers by cutting migrants’ rights. The next government has a huge opportunity to reassess this record of failure, that has fuelled a massive rise in crime and exploitation and to build a fair, safe and equal working environment for all of us. In a new report published last week, migrant domestic worker charity Kalayaan sets out how.

In 2012, in pursuit of David Cameron’s “tens of thousands of migrants” pledge, domestic workers lost the right to freely change employer, renew their visa, be accompanied by their spouse and children to the UK, and to eventually apply for settlement and put down roots in this country. Given the overwhelming majority of migrant domestic workers are women, these changes were particularly harsh on mothers working to provide for their families. Instead of living in the UK as workers like any others, they are treated as the ultimate disposable labour. Their work is undervalued and their humanity totally disregarded by this new, incredibly restrictive visa regime.

Conservative governments since Cameron have maintained yet repeatedly failed to meet their commitment to reduce migrant numbers, and rejected calls to reinstate the rights of migrant workers. But the need for their labour never disappeared, and the government has continued to grant around 20,000 domestic workers’ visas per year despite these changes. The difference is in the risk of exploitation those who come are subjected to, and that’s where a Labour government will be able to make a change.

The government has failed to gather data on the experiences of exploitation of migrant domestic workers. Because their work takes place mainly within private homes, there is no monitoring of conditions and no labour inspections carried out to ensure compliance with minimum standards. Since visas can no longer be renewed, there is no point of contact with the Home Office to ensure ongoing employment in decent legal conditions. The Conservatives have used their own failure to collect information about the experiences of workers as a smokescreen allowing them to refuse to address the growing problems the visa restrictions have caused.

However, Kalayaan has been collecting that data. Through the support they offer to domestic workers, since well before the visa changes were introduced, they have been able to measure the increase in rates of exploitation and abuse. The next government will now have access to this rich and hard-hitting data when assessing the impact of the last 12 years of hostility, and deciding on its approach to migrant worker visas.

The evidence Kalayaan has collected really is some of the starkest indictment of the ‘hostile environment‘ for migrant workers available. By comparing the percentage of domestic workers they support who experience a range of indicators of exploitation and abuse over time, they are able to demonstrate the impact of the changes in the visa regime. There has been an exponential increase in rates of a wide range of forms of exploitation since the restrictions introduced in 2012. From wage theft and not having a single day off in the week, to irregular access to food, being trapped inside their employer’s home, and physical and psychological abuse, there has been a very significant rise across the board.


Source: Analysis of 2,080 Kalayaan clients registered between April 2008 and April 2024. Created by Matt Reynolds, London School of Economics and Political Science (X / Academic profile).

We need to be clear that this represents a significant rise in criminality enabled by government policy. By so drastically cutting the rights of an already relatively invisibilisedpart of the labour force, the government has created an environment for criminal exploitation to thrive. There is relatively no risk for employers who seek to abuse this largely female workforce because their time in the country is so short, their links to family cut off, and their right to change employer in practice curtailed so far as to be impossible to access.

And this doesn’t end with domestic workers. Many of the same restrictions that were introduced in 2012 have since been rolled out on other visa pathways, too. Seasonal farm workers now have similarly short periods of leave and experience difficulties changing employer. More recently care workers have been targeted with restrictions to prevent them from bringing spouses and children with them to the UK. The government has failed to learn the lessons about its failure to reduce numbers by reducing migrant workers’ rights, and the culture of exploitation it drives.

Labour must take a holistic approach to visa reform, one that includes all workers – as domestic workers have, in many ways, been treated as a test-group for some of the most vicious anti-migrant and anti-worker policies that have been introduced by successive Conservative administrations. This erosion of rights can only be achieved when different groups of workers are siloed and their rights reduced in isolation, as separate groups of migrants, rather than as workers – it’s a deliberate ploy to impact the power of solidarity that protects rights when all workers stand together.

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