London, United Kingdom – British politicians have backed calls for the government to reverse controversial changes to visa rules for thousands of migrant workers, which anti-slavery campaigners say have made the UK a “significant facilitator of forced labour”.
In a report published earlier this month, members of a parliamentary committee examining government proposals to tackle what it has called “the scourge of modern slavery” warned that changes to the visa regime had “strengthened the hand of the slave master” and said: “The moral case for revisiting this issue is urgent and overwhelming.”
Frank Field, the opposition Labour MP who chaired the committee, said that the government’s modern slavery bill needed to be redrafted to provide better protection for victims of trafficking and slavery.
“For parts of this bill, amendments will not be sufficient to make good, workable, effective legislation. Some parts need a rewrite,” he said. “This is ground-breaking legislation that will influence law and the fight against modern slavery around the globe. The world is watching: We have to get this right.”
The plight of domestic workers in the UK was also highlighted in a recent report by Human Rights Watch which included testimonies from dozens of women who said they were mistreated while working as servants in wealthy households.
About 15,000 domestic workers travel to the UK with their employers each year, with many accompanying Gulf Arab families. Some complained of having had their passports confiscated, of working long hours without breaks or days off for little or no pay, of being locked up and subjected to physical abuse and verbal threats.
One domestic worker from the Philippines described how she had been repeatedly threatened by the adult son of her Qatari employer, for whom she had been sent to the UK to work as a servant.
“Sometimes he was tired, and he said if I made a mistake, or there wasn’t any food he liked, ‘I can kill you and throw you into the sea’,” she told Human Rights Watch researchers.
Another woman, also from the Philippines, said: “I had a room with a bed. But at 5am I woke up and made tea for my Madam. She told me not to go to my room again until midnight… I sat with them in restaurants, looking at them eating.”
A week after arriving in London, when her employers forgot to lock the door, the woman ran away without her passport or any money.
Campaigners told Al Jazeera that tougher visa rules introduced in 2012 had left domestic workers with no escape route and tied the hands of those trying to help them.
‘Massive backward step’
Izza Leghtas, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the new “tied visa” rules, which prevent domestic workers from leaving their employer while in the UK, meant they remained trapped by the kefala sponsorship system common in the Gulf, which has been widely condemned as exploitative by human rights groups and labour organisations.
“This sends a message to employers who are used to the kefala system, that it is acceptable to treat their workers in the same way,” Leghtas told Al Jazeera. “I have spoken to many domestic workers who worked in the Gulf who would come to the UK with their employers and they would continue to treat them in the same way – and sometimes even worse.”
The UK’s right-wing government justified changes to the domestic worker visa system in 2012 as a means of curbing the number of unskilled migrants entering the country. It is now steering legislation through parliament to impose tougher sentences on traffickers and create the post of an anti-slavery commissioner as part of measures it claims will contribute to tackling the “the scourge of modern slavery”.
But Kate Roberts, community advocate for Kalayaan, a charity campaigning on behalf of migrant domestic workers, said the revised visa system represented a “massive backward step” for those attempting to reach abused employees.
Under the old system, Kalayaan had been approached by about 300 people a year. But she said just 120 people who had entered the country under the tied visa scheme had come forward to report abuse in the past two years.
They had typically described worse working conditions than those employed under the previous visa scheme, with most saying they were paid less than £50 ($83) a week and were not allowed out unsupervised.
‘Hands are tied’
Roberts said the numbers reflect concerns that those who come forward, severing ties with their employer, would be treated as undocumented migrants and face deportation.
“It affects the support we can give them because we have to inform them that they’ve breached immigration laws,” Roberts told Al Jazeera. “Usually they have paid quite a lot of money to an agent or indebted themselves to get the first job and they can’t go home.
“They are not going to come to us to be referred as victims of trafficking and left in legal limbo for years. They will just disappear, presumably to be abused further. They have pulled everything out from under the feet of domestic workers, and in terms of supporting them our hands are tied now.”
Some campaigners are concerned that the government may not accept the committee’s recommendations, because of continuing fears about immigration.
“I’m hopeful that the government will take some recommendations on board, but I think that the recommendation on the domestic worker visa is unlikely to get government support in the current climate,” Claire Falconer, legal director of the campaign group Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), told Al Jazeera. “The government is protecting the lifestyles of people who want to have domestic workers in their home and not protecting the workers themselves. It says it is trying to eradicate modern slavery but at the same time they are creating conditions that create vulnerability to slavery.”
Falconer said necessary steps include reversing changes to the visa system, implementing a monitoring system and ensuring employment rights are respected regardless of immigration status.
“Immigration law currently trumps employment law and human rights law. It is extremely difficult for workers to enforce their rights even if they are a victim of trafficking or forced labour because employers know workers will just be deported if they complain.”
‘Same side as Sudan’
Aidan McQuade, director of the charity Anti-Slavery International, urged government to focus on the welfare of victims. “We have always argued that a comprehensive victim protection system needs to be at the heart of the bill if it is to be effective in tackling slavery,” he said.
McQuade also called on the UK to address the issue of forced labour at a global level by adopting development policies in countries where poverty and a lack of opportunities force people abroad in search of work.
He pointed out that remittances sent home significantly outweigh the economic contribution of Western aid programmes.
“There is a disjoint between broad development and anti-poverty policy and safe migration and anti-slavery policy,” McQuade told Al Jazeera. “Those elements need to be harmonised in a way that increases the capacity of poor vulnerable workers to access safe decent work and contribute back to their home countries.”
The Home Office, the UK’s interior ministry, told Al Jazeera a range of options are available to domestic workers in need of protection after arriving in the UK. It said rules requiring applicants to have been employed for 12 months prior to being issued a visa and to have appropriate employment contracts act as further safeguards.
“Abuse of overseas domestic workers is unacceptable and we believe the best way to prevent it is by testing the validity of the working relationship before a visa is issued,” a spokesperson said anonymously, as is government policy in the UK.
But McQuade said the UK’s refusal – along with eight other countries including Sudan – to support an International Labour Organisation convention pressing for better rights for domestic workers in 2011 had undermined its credibility in the fight against slavery, and thrown into question its commitment to tackling forced labour within its own borders.
“Whenever you are on the same side as Sudan on a human rights issue, you are probably on the wrong side,” said McQuade. “They have been deaf to this and I would be interested to see whether now, seeing the suffering of human beings being reported in the media, they will be deaf to that as well, and try and ignore the troubling fact that a significant facilitator of forced labour within the UK is British government policy.”
A version of this article was originally published on Al Jazeera on 14 April, 2014.