UK-based domestic workers share stories of exploitation

by Patrick Camara Ropeta, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at Dec 20 2012 12:54 PM | Updated as of Dec 20 2012 08:54 PM

LONDON - A group of domestic workers in England shared personal stories of exploitation and called for better labor rights to mark International Migrants Day 2012.

Members of Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW), a support group run by domestic workers for domestic workers, gathered at Syracuse University on Sunday (December 16) to discuss labor issues and human rights.

ODWs in the UK share life stories of migrants for International Migrants Day/Patrick Ropeta

UK-based migrants from around the world, including Philippines, India, Indonesia, Morocco, and Nigeria, told their stories of hardship as foreign workers, many of whom experienced some form of physical, mental, emotional or sexual abuse from previous employers.

Mira Suelto, 35, from Negros Oriental in the Philippines, was among the group. She claimed to have suffered poor working conditions under former employers from the United Arab Emirates, but managed to flee from the Arab family while staying in the UK.

“I managed to escape from them,” she told ABS-CBN News. “The salary was very low, I worked extremely long hours, and they were also abusive. I also didn’t have communication with my family back home, and even if I tried to write letters, my employers would keep it and won’t send them.”

Under the old UK visa for overseas domestic workers (ODW), Suelto eventually found a new employer in London, a bachelor entrepreneur whom she said treated her well. But her good luck didn't last long.

In 2008, the Filipina domestic worker was again in trouble, but this time with British immigration officers. Due to unfortunate circumstances, she was suspected of breaking the terms of her visa when she was allegedly accused of working on her employer’s business establishment rather than his household. Migrants with ODW visas are only allowed to work as help in private households.

“I couldn't sleep at the time. I was taken into custody and even taken to the airport a few times for deportation. I was alone and I had no one to help me for a long time. But I knew that I wasn't doing anything illegal. I only came to this country to work and help my family,” she recalled.

Suelto's case lasted until 2011, when she was eventually given the right to remain and work in the UK after proving her innocence in court. After years of limbo and being unable to work, she is now rebuilding her life and is being assisted by J4DW and Kalayaan, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) supporting vulnerable migrants.

“We cannot deny what is happening to migrants,” said Marissa Begonia, an activist from J4DW and a domestic worker herself for the past 18 years.

She added: “They are being abused and exploited. There should be more legislation to improve the rights and protections of migrant domestic workers.”

Modern day slavery

Begonia and J4DW are campaigning for the restoration of the ODW visa, which was revised by the UK government in April 2012.

Members of J4DW created campaign artwork for International Migrants Day as part of learning new skills/Patrick Ropeta

In the new system, migrant domestic workers are no longer allowed to change employer, a key feature of the previous visa. They are also no longer allowed to renew their visa while in the UK, and are legally required to enter and leave the country at the same time as their employer.

With this new visa regulation, domestic workers who have a similar experience to Suelto will no longer have the option to stay in the UK to seek new employers and settle in the country.

“To tie domestic workers with their employers is slavery. We live in the modern world but this is modern day slavery,” Begonia argued.

In the UK, reports based on figures from 2011 suggest an estimated 1.5 million domestic workers in private and diplomatic households, many of whom are migrants from Asia and Africa.

A study by London-based charity Kalayaan claims that 41% of migrant domestic workers suffer a form of abuse from employers, based on statistics from the Home Office between 2003 and 2010.

“We are concerned that the loss [of certain rights from the ODW visa] will ultimately facilitate trafficking, including trafficking for domestic servitude,” said Kate Roberts from Kalayaan, who was also at the event.

She continued: “We will continue to support migrant domestic workers to enforce their rights, to take cases. And we’re going to continue to build up evidence as to why migrant domestic workers do need to be recognized as workers with enforceable protections in the UK.”

Net migration

The government argues that changes on the ODW visa were necessary to help manage the country’s net migration, part of wider changes to tighten UK immigration policies in light of the global economic crisis.

Earlier this year, Cabinet member Theresa May claimed that revisions on the ODW visa were designed to ensure that this route is not abused by unskilled workers wishing to enter and settle in the UK.

But campaigners supporting ODWs argue that migrant domestic workers have a negligible impact on overall migration. A report by Kalayaan claim that only 5% of ODWs settle in the UK.

More importantly, according to the Trade Union Congress, ODWs have minimal impact on local employment and services with their share of taxes exceeding the public costs of their stay in the UK.

Helping society

A report by J4DW claim that ODWs in the UK are making valuable contributions to society rather than being burdens to the state.

The small study entitled “The Contribution Migrant Domestic Workers Make to the Global Economy” outlined the positive impact of this sector to the wider society.

It stipulated that migrant domestic workers facilitate the work of their employers, who are often busy professionals and captains of industry, by assisting them in their lives which consequently allows them to achieve their economic goals.

Statistics from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) support this claim, stipulating in a recent survey that 79% of private households with migrant domestic workers agreed that being unable to hire ODWs will affect their lives “badly”.

Furthermore, the J4DW report claimed that ODWs are helping the global economy by simultaneously injecting money into the their country of origin, through remittances that sustain their family back home, and their host country, through their local expenditures on rent, food, clothing and taxes.

“I want to reach out to everybody to recognize the valuable contribution of migrant domestic workers and all migrants,” urged Begonia.

Migrant domestic workers and supporters are urging governments to ratify the ILO Convention No. 189 for their basic labor rights/Patrick Ropeta

Labor rights

Representatives from trade unions and NGOs have expressed support for J4DW and their campaign, lending advise and encouragement to the group at their celebration of International Migrants Day.

“A lot of this country was built on migrant workers’ contribution, commitment and strength,” said Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary from UNITE, one of the largest labor unions in the UK.

She added: “There are plenty of people who maybe started their life in a different country who become citizen of another country. They’re no longer migrant workers. They are part of that country. There are plenty of British workers who have become citizens of other countries or who work in other countries. I want them to be treated the same way as I hope this country would treat other people coming in from other parts of the world.”

The International Labor Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations dealing with labor issues, estimates that there are 53-100 million domestic workers around the world, many of whom are women and migrants.

Yet, despite this figure, domestic workers are often excluded from labor legislation in most countries. This led to the introduction of the ILO Convention No. 189 in 2011, which ensures that domestic workers have basic rights in any given country, like minimum wage, days off, and decent working conditions.

“Migrants are also human beings just like everyone. They should be respected and given rights in any country that they come to, because they also deserve a living,” said Kwasi Agyemang-Prempeh from Justice for Cleaners UK, a sister group of J4DW.

As of December 2012, however, only Uruguay, Mauritius and the Philippines have ratified the landmark ILO convention, prompting a campaign from organizations like the International Trade Union Congress to push various governments to implement it.

Oliver Pearce from Christian Aid, who also supports J4DW, said: “Migrants are often exploited, and that can lead to poverty for them and poverty for their families back home. Countries like the UK should be playing a leading role in setting an example that basic labor rights are implemented.”

He concluded: “Migrants, wherever they’re working in the world, should be entitled to the same rights, particularly the same labor rights as other citizens and other people.”

Established in 2000 by the United Nations, International Migrants Day is observed annually on December 18, the anniversary of a UN convention adopted in 1990 to protect the rights of migrant workers and their families.