A recent investigation by the Telegraph has uncovered how diplomats from the Middle East and Southeast Asia are subjecting domestic workers in their household to conditions amounting to modern slavery.
Forced to work for no pay in terrible conditions
Workers reported living in inhumane conditions, forced to work all hours seven days a week, never paid, having their passports confiscated, and only allowed to eat the family’s leftovers.
Eleanor, from Indonesia, recalls her experiences of traveling the U.K. with a diplomat from Southeast Asia. As soon as she started working with him, she was woken up at 1am. “He came into the room and told me to unpack his shopping,” she said. “From that point I started to think this might not be a normal way of working.”
Eleanor was eventually able to call the Indonesian embassy who advised her to run away. Once her employer had left the house, she fled and manage to receive support through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the system through with modern slavery victims are identified and supported in the U.K. Now, she has managed to build a life for herself in London.
“Tip of the iceberg”
According to a 2015 government-commissioned review into exploited migrant staff, up to 17,000 domestic workers travel to the U.K. every year.
Kalayaan, an organisation supporting migrant domestic workers in the U.K., supplied data to the Telegraph demonstrating at least 13 domestic workers were abused by 10 different diplomats from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Brunei and the Philippines from 2017 to 2021.
However, these numbers are likely just the tip of the iceberg as it is unknown how many domestic workers experiencing exploitation are unable to escape, and for those that do manage to leave, not all of them will choose to be entered into the NRM.
Ayesha Mohsin, a lawyer at Kalayaan told the Telegraph:
“It is likely that the number of people we are able to help is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Ayesha Mohsin, a lawyer at Kalayaan.
“This abuse is happening behind closed doors, in people’s homes. It is this context that also makes it difficult for victims to seek help, which is why the government’s failure to implement proposed safeguards is so disheartening.
“Diplomats know they can act with impunity because of this failure to act.”
Return to pre-2012 Overseas Domestic Worker visa
A change to the Overseas Domestic Worker visa in 2012 unequivocally increased migrant domestic workers’ vulnerability to modern slavery and human trafficking in the U.K. The isolated nature of domestic work combined with the worker’s extreme dependency on an employer and a lack of rights, means they are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Prior to the 2012 change, domestic workers from overseas would be allowed to change employers and, after five years, apply for secure immigration status in the U.K. known as indefinite leave to remain. Eventually, this group of workers would also be able to apply for full U.K. citizenship.
But in 2012, the system changed for the worse. Migrant domestic workers were only able to enter and work in the U.K. on a six-month non-renewable visa, with their immigration status tied to their employer.
Today, domestic workers are still fighting to have their rights restored with one simple, achievable ask: a return to the pre-2012 Overseas Domestic Worker visa with a route to secure immigration status.
Freedom United has been campaigning for years alongside domestic workers in the U.K. urging for the restoration of migrant domestic workers’ rights. We’re not giving up. Join the campaign today and let’s keep pushing the government to do the right thing.