LONDON—A Filipino household helper is urging the British parliament to pass a law that would protect migrant domestic workers and give them the right to stay in the country amid a raging immigration debate here.
Marissa Begonia, founder of the group Justice for Domestic Workers, is lobbying the House of Commons to include in the Draft Modern Slavery Bill, a provision allowing foreign domestic workers to change employers and renew their work visas.
Migrant domestic workers were stripped of these privileges, which they enjoyed before, in 2012 as part of the government’s efforts to control the flow of migrants to the United Kingdom. Because of this, they are now tied to their employers and can only stay in Britain for a maximum of six months.
Stuck with their employers, many migrant domestic workers often end up helpless against various forms of abuse for fear of losing their jobs and staying in the country illegally, Begonia said.
“If they experience abuse, they have to choose between being undocumented or staying with the abusive employer,” she told ABS-CBN News. “If they escape, their visa would expire after six months and they automatically become undocumented. They become criminals.”
Begonia, who arrived in Britain 10 years ago, said the chance to find other employers gives victims of abuse hope of moving on. She added that many of them, particularly Filipinos, do not want to go back to their countries because of the uncertainty of finding a job.
At a hearing on the slavery bill in the House of Commons last January 28, Begonia spoke about how she would get calls for help even in the middle of the night from domestic workers experiencing abuse.
“I could hear from my phone the employer throwing things at her and I could hear the shouting. She’s not being fed … and to be beaten, that’s the worst thing. We had to take a taxi to go and rescue [her]. But knowing that they are already undocumented, what do you think shall we do?” she told parliament ministers.
“What is the protection? It’s all gone. I myself don’t know what to say, don’t know what to do.”
Kalayaan, a charity for migrant domestic workers in the UK, calls the change in domestic worker visa polices “slavery by another name”. The group recorded 116 potential victims of “trafficking for domestic servitude” in 2012 after the new policy took effect.
The abuse comes in many forms such as low pay, Kalayaan said. Of the complaints from domestic helpers it has received so far, all reported that they were paid below the minimum wage, and 6 out of 10 said they weren’t paid any salary at all.
Asked by an MP about the number of domestic workers being abused, Kalayaan community advocate Kate Roberts answered that they do not have exact figures.
“We don’t really know what’s happening to the people we don’t see. What we do know is that in the years since the current visa was introduced tying domestic workers to their employers, the number of visas issued remained pretty constant over the last five years, but the number coming to Kalayaan dropped by about a third,” she said.
“People are not coming forward. Those who did come forward, they reported far worse treatment. So it does imply that people are either enduring abuse or are being driven underground.”
If the slavery bill is passed with changes in the visa policy, migrant domestic workers would be allowed to change employers, renew their work visas, and settle in the UK after five years, among others.
However, campaigners like Begonia face increasing public support for a reduction in immigration and for parties and policies that advocate it.
Still, Begonia is hopeful legislators would understand the need to protect migrant domestic workers.
“The more vulnerable the workers are, the more protection they need,” she said.