One step forward but two steps back for migrant domestic workers.

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By RUTH GROVE-WHITE (MRN)

When Dalisay* came to the UK as a domestic worker, she had no idea what she was letting herself in for. She found herself working in a private house with no days off for just £25 per week, and she was not allowed outside alone. She was regularly shouted at and insulted by her employer, who had taken her passport away from her. After two long years she managed to escape and find a better employer – it’s still hard work but she is at least treated decently.

Migrant domestic worker charity Kalayaan sees people like Dalisay every week – demonstrating that abuse of migrant domestic workers persists in many households. But as of yesterday, the UK is sitting on the brink of removing the few protections that exist for this vulnerable group of workers in the UK.

In a new set of proposed immigration reforms, the coalition government has announced it intends to reform the overseas domestic worker visa, by either closing it altogether or by limiting it severely. Both outcomes could mean that migrant domestic workers, if able to enter the UK legally at all, would once again become tied to their employer in the UK and would have only limited legal stay here.

This could effectively return them to a state of bonded labour.

Ironically, this announcement was made during the week that the world gathered at the United Nations in Geneva to agree an historic International Labour Organisation convention, setting out improved international standards of protection for domestic workers. This was a huge step forward for migrant domestic workers, but was soured here by the UK government’s stated intention to remove protections at home.

The vulnerability of migrant domestic workers to exploitation by their employers in the UK has been well-documented (pdf) by researchers and charities and was reiterated by peers in a House of Lords debate this week. Entering the UK to work in the homes of the wealthy and powerful, domestic workers are frequently exposed to poor working conditions and levels of secret abuse which many would not believe exist in modern Britain.

Although such exploitation largely takes place behind closed doors where employment protections are minimal, the state currently plays a critical role in ensuring migrant domestic workers have at least some escape route from abusive employers. If immigration status is dependent on staying with a particular employer, many migrant domestic workers will choose to endure abuse in silence rather than risk leaving.

In 1998 the Labour government introduced a special visa route for domestic workers, which broke the link between the worker and a specific employer. Although this has not stamped out exploitation altogether, it has at least ensured that workers experiencing abuse can change employers without losing their right to live in the UK, and that they can extend their stay in the UK legally if necessary.

The main charity working with migrant domestic workers, Kalayaan, reported last month that the current overseas domestic worker visa plays a low-cost and effective role in protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers, particularly by helping them to flee abusive employers.

So why would the coalition government remove protections for domestic workers? The government wants to reduce the UK’s net long-term migration levels, in response to public concerns about immigration. The ‘special’ protections afforded by the migrant domestic worker visa are being reviewed as part of this.

If the domestic worker route is to continue, it will be limited to a short-term, non-renewable visa, probably tied to one employer. The coalition government claims this will allow employers time to recruit domestic workers instead from within the UK. But there is little evidence to support the claim that demand for domestic workers can be satisfied from within the domestic labour market. Instead, the danger here is that a space will be left wide open for a grey economy based on exploitation of migrants within private households.

By scrapping the migrant domestic worker visa, or by greatly restricting it, the coalition government would greatly set the UK back in its protection of vulnerable workers. The need to protect these workers has now been recognised internationally – we should be leading the way by making sure these standards are fully implemented in the UK.
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