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UK: Visa policy "increasing abuse" of foreign domestic workers, says damning review

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by IDWFED published Jan 11, 2016 12:00 AM
Contributors: Harriet Grant & Annie Kelly/The Guardian
Tied visas that restrict domestic workers to one employer and limit their stay in the UK have left women vulnerable to slavery and abuse, review reveals.

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Read the original article in full: UK visa policy ‘increasing abuse’ of foreign maids, says damning review | The Guardian

Excerpt:

The British government is exposing thousands of women brought to the UK by wealthy Gulf families to conditions of slavery, trafficking and abuse, according to a review of domestic worker visas.

Domestic workers transported to the UK are legally tied to their employer and are unable to change jobs while in the country. The Home Office has faced a barrage of criticism that this “tied” visa, introduced in 2012, leaves workers unable to escape abusive employers, effectively trapping them in domestic slavery.

An independent review of the visa, commissioned by the Home Office and authored by barrister James Ewins, strongly endorses this assessment. The review found “no evidence that a tie to a single employer does anything other than increase the risk of abuse and therefore increases actual abuse”.

Roughly 17,000 overseas domestic worker visas were issued by UK authorities last year. The large majority of visas for domestic staff came from the Gulf states. Half of all visa applications were from families from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

A series of interviews with domestic workers who suffered abuse in the UK highlighted a widespread fear that reporting abuse would result in deportation or arrest.

Renera*, a Philippine domestic worker who was left without food by her employer and prevented from sleeping, is fighting to stay in the UK after she was positively identified as a victim of trafficking. “When I called the Filipino embassy and told them my employer was abusing me, they said that under the tied visa I had to return to Saudi Arabia with him,” she said.

The women interviewed had neither been informed of their rights under UK law nor seen their contract at the visa application stage, as required under the terms of the visa. Many said they had been pressed to sign the visa form without understanding what they were doing.

Renera said: “On the way to the UK [visa application office] in Saudi, my employer told me, ‘If anyone asks, you will earn £350 a week in London’. I had to sign papers so that he could have a travel visa for me, but he wouldn’t let me read them properly. The papers were in Arabic and nobody at the office asked me if I wanted to go to the UK with him.”

Campaigners said the review made it impossible for the government to deny that visa restrictions imposed on domestic workers create conditions under which abuse can flourish.

“Since this visa came into force in 2012 the government has received widespread condemnation of the conditions it is imposing on thousands of vulnerable women travelling with foreign employers into the UK, often with little choice, who are given no protection or agency when they are here,” said Kate Roberts, head of policy at Kalayaan, a domestic worker rights group.

Roberts added that domestic workers are often treated like an “extra piece of hand luggage” by their employers.

Campaigners have argued that the existing arrangements are “bringing kafala to the UK”, a reference to the sponsorship system in place across many Gulf countries that ties migrant workers to employers and prevents them from leaving their job or returning home without permission. Human rights groups have catalogued the high levels of abuse faced by domestic workers across the region. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, 2.4 million domestic workers are facing conditions of slavery in the Gulf.

The government says restrictions on domestic staff leaving their employers are designed to prevent workers switching jobs to stay in the UK.

The review recommended that workers be allowed to change employers and stay in the UK for up to two and a half years before returning home. It also urged the government to start collecting data on the number of women reporting abusive working conditions after entering the UK on the overseas domestic workers visa.

The Home Office is yet to respond to the review’s recommendations, but a spokesman said: “This government is committed to stopping modern slavery in all its forms. We are working to ensure we provide all victims of modern slavery and trafficking with the protection and support they need through the national referral mechanism (NRM), [a government process set up to identify victims of trafficking]. Anyone who reports being brought to the UK against their will for the purpose of work shall have their case considered under the NRM.”

The Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart, who has worked closely on the issue of domestic workers, claimed the government deliberately published the review just before Christmas to avoid parliamentary scrutiny: “They shoved the review out with a dump of reports, suggesting they don’t want to address the findings.”

Mactaggart added that reluctance to confront Saudi human rights abuses was part of a broader failure. “Last week, a junior minister was put up to defend British feebleness in the face of Saudi executions. It seems clear that the government doesn’t want to confront the Saudi authorities or Saudi practices where they are an affront to human rights. They are obsessed with bringing down immigration numbers, and that obsession trumps concerns for human rights.”

Campaigners say domestic workers who leave abusive employers are often pressed to leave the UK as soon as they are identified as a victims of trafficking. This makes many vulnerable women reluctant to engage with authoritie, pushing them into illegal work in order to keep sending money home to their families

The standard recovery period for trafficking victims is 45 days. Domestic workers may stay for six months if they can support themselves without access to public funds or support.

Source: Harriet Grant & Annie Kelly/The Guardian

Story Type: News

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