When working as a cook in the Sudanese embassy in London, Fatima Benkharbouche faced exploitation: her employer failed to pay her minimum wage, withheld some of her salary and breached working time rules. She made an employment tribunal claim, but because her employer had diplomatic immunity, her claim was originally dismissed.
The law is now set to be tightened to cover cases like Fatima’s, so that embassies are no longer immune from being taking to an employment tribunal by domestic workers, including kitchen, cleaning, caregiving and security staff.
Immunity leaves workers unprotected
Domestic staff of U.K.-based embassies have been less protected against exploitation and modern slavery due to provisions in the 1978 Immunity Act. According to the law, these workers are unable to seek redress in the U.K. for violations of their labor rights.
Thirty countries have claimed immunity in the past from employment claims, including Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Brunei, Burundi, Cyprus, Denmark, Egypt, France, Ghana, Guyana, Haiti, India and Kenya. As had Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Yemen and Zambia.
However, a Supreme Court ruling has declared that two parts of the 1978 State Immunity Act are incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
A remedial order will partially address this failing
This ruling has led the government to develop a remedial order to resolve this issue, meaning countries will no longer be able to use immunity to get out of employment tribunal claims.
However, this remedial order falls short of completely scrapping immunity in such cases. The Evening Standard reports:
The remedial order will limit this state immunity to cases which might be brought by diplomats, consular officers or other people employed on a “sovereign authority” or “governmental” basis.
This week, the U.K. Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights gave its support to a draft of the remedial order. It is expected to proceed to the Commons and Lords for approval in the coming months.
Advocate for domestic workers’ rights everywhere
Domestic workers have been more vulnerable to exploitation in U.K.’s embassies because they lack protections in the national laws of many countries around the world.
But there is a global standard to protect domestic workers. It’s called Convention 189 and it sets out measures for governments to follow to better protect them. Many key countries have already signed on, however momentum has slowed since it was introduced in 2011, and we need to push our governments to act.
Use our tool to check if your government has signed on, and if it hasn’t, call for action today.