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UK: A step back into Victorian-era slavery for UK domestic workers

by IDWFED published Mar 11, 2012 12:00 AM
Contributors: Marissa Begonia/The Guardian
Tying the visas of domestic workers to one employer means they will not be able to flee ill treatment for fear of being deported



Read the original article in full: A step back into Victorian-era slavery for UK domestic workers | The Guardian

This week the Guardian reported that in a momentous victory for the 200,000 domestic workers in Singapore, the laws will be changed to ensure they will be given one day off a week.

I cannot help but contrast this small victory with the giant leap back for such workers in the UK. The previous week, the government announced it will tie the visas of migrant domestic workers – who are brought to the UK to work in their employer's homes – to one employer. This means they will not be able to flee ill treatment for fear of being liable to deportation from the UK.

As a domestic worker I have experienced the kind of abuse and creeping exploitation that can go on in a private house, where there is never a clocking-off time, and you are vulnerable to the predations of men (and women) who know you are powerless.

I left the Philippines for the first time when I was 24 years old, when my youngest daughter was one. When I went back two years later, she didn't recognise me. My children are my flesh and blood; they are the reason I work so hard, but they are also making a sacrifice because it is hard to grow up without your parents at your side. When they are ill, you want to be there with them, but you can only send money to pay the hospital bills.

I first worked as a domestic worker in Singapore, but the salary was very low, so I tried Hong Kong, yet there I had an abusive employer so I returned to the Philippines. I sold food from 4am every day, but it wasn't enough to meet our needs, so I worked until midnight as a bookkeeper. I never saw my kids, and I couldn't save any money. When they were ill, I didn't have the money to pay for their treatment. So I had no choice but to leave them again and find another job abroad to give them a decent life. That is how I ended up going back to Hong Kong.

My last employers in Hong Kong moved to London and brought me with them. I didn't know my rights at that time – my salary was very low, the hours were long, and my employer was controlling. When I was allowed to have days off, I met other domestic workers who told me that in the UK I have the right to change employer – and I fled.

I now have a supportive and respectful employer whose child I look after. I also chair the self-help union group Justice 4 Domestic Workers (J4DW), in conjunction with the Unite union and NGOs.

Yet every Sunday when our members meet I witness the effects of abuse; a domestic worker arrives with bruises and marks looking shy and anxious. We try and make her understand that she is safe and that she can find a new employer who will treat her as human being and pay her a fair salary. I don't know what we will say to domestic workers who arrive under the new rules.

J4DW turns three years old in a few weeks, and the past few months have been incredibly stressful. We know what it is like to work around the clock constantly in fear, humiliated for any little mistake, and for our wages to be withheld so that we cannot even feed our families – and we do not want others to go through this.

We did everything we could to raise our voices to the UK government before it made this decision. We wrote to our MPs and demonstrated in front of the House of Lords. It wasn't easy: we only have one day off a week, and many of us never had the chance to finish school so, although we are learning English, writing responses and letters is still difficult.

The right to change employer is a very important protection for domestic workers, it allows us the chance to say no to abuse. The government says it will make sure our employers sign contracts with us before we come to the UK, but if we lose our visas as soon as we challenge our employers, how will we enforce this? All of us came into the UK with written contracts, but most of us were either never given a copy or we signed it without a chance to read it first.

Many of us have had out passports confiscated and held by our employers. Later, when things became too much, many of us fled – not knowing where we would go – in fear and without clothes, passports or money.

Last year the UK was one of the few countries to abstain from supporting an International Labour Organisation convention on protection for domestic workers, claiming there were already good safeguards in place. Now, six months later, these protections have been removed.

This year, as the UK celebrates the Olympics and the Queen's Jubilee, for us domestic workers it is a return to Victorian-era slavery.

Source: Marissa Begonia/The Guardian

Story Type: News

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