Domestic workers rally against modern slavery in UK

By Patrick Camara Ropeta, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at Jun 18 2014 09:23 AM | Updated as of Jun 18 2014 09:48 PM

Domestic workers rally against modern slavery in UK 1
Campaigner Marissa Begonia from J4DW says No To Slavery

LONDON - Migrant domestic workers and human rights campaigners joined forces at a Westminster rally to call an end to modern slavery in Britain.

Dubbed as the "No To Slavery" campaign, protesters took to the streets outside the Houses of Parliament in central London to fight against what they believe is an ongoing oppression of migrant domestic workers in the country.

The event, which includes keynote speeches from prominent campaigners, creative activities from live poetry to graffiti, and public dramatization of real cases, also marks the 2014 International Domestic Workers’ Day last June 16.

“There is slavery in Britain. It’s been historic and it’s still alive today,” said Marissa Begonia, a Filipina activist and coordinator of Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW), a UK lobby group campaigning for rights of domestic workers, that also organized the rally.

She told ABS-CBN Europe: “We would like to raise awareness of slavery to the public. We need the public to support our campaign. We need the public to know that there are domestic workers caged in some private households. We also want the government to listen to us to reinstate the rights of domestic workers in the UK. And for all of them to treat us as part of society, with the kind of respect we deserve.”

Campaigners at the rally - which includes J4DW, migrant rights supporter Kalayaan, and labor group UNITE The Union - are lobbying for changes to UK government policies on immigration and domestic work which, they argue, are facilitating slavery.

In particular, they are calling for the reinstatement of Overseas Domestic Worker Visa, abolished in April 2012, which includes the rights to change employer, renew visa in the UK, apply for settlement after five years in the UK, and the right to have a family reunion.

They also want these rights to be extended to domestic workers in diplomatic households, which currently operate under a different set of tighter rules.

“It is the system that allows employers to abuse and exploit domestic workers, and it is the system that we are fighting to change to free domestic workers from slavery,” said Begonia, who also claims to have personally experienced abuse while working as a domestic worker.

“Many people don’t believe that slavery exists,” she added, “because gone are those days when people are chained. But actually, in forbidding domestic workers to change employers, to tie them to one employer, that is slavery.”

Human rights campaigners argue that the current UK policy of tying migrant domestic workers to one employer makes it easier for labor exploitation and abuses to take place, leaving household staff vulnerable and powerless against rogue employers.

“I often run out in the middle of the night to rescue domestic workers and help them, especially if I can hear on the phone that they are being beaten,” Begonia said.

“We have many rape cases. Some are not paid their salary on time or are not paid enough, some not paid at all. And even worst cases like being poured boiling water on your body. When we see them, we can see all these marks. So many of them just run away. These are horrible and inhumane, and you wouldn’t think this is happening in the UK, but we face these abusive treatments from employers," she added.

Meena - not her real name - is one of those who suffered abuse at the hands of her employers in the UK. She declined to be identified due to an ongoing case.

“I ran away from my employers because I couldn’t take the abuses any more. They didn’t pay my salary and I was also left hungry all the time,” she told ABS-CBN Europe.

“When I escaped I had no clothes except what I was wearing, so J4DW helped me. They gave me clothes and sheltered me temporarily. Then they took me to Kalayaan who gave me advice and referred me to a lawyer. That was a year ago now, and I have a human trafficking case in court, but a year is not enough to recover from the abuse I have experienced," she said.

The 34-year-old domestic worker, originally from Mindanao, was brought to the UK by her employers from Qatar, where she worked legally since 2005.

She claims to have been exploited in both countries, from not being paid the amount of salary promised in her contract, to limited food provisions which left her hungry at night, and even verbal and psychological abuse from employers who were allegedly “angry” at her constantly.

She also felt isolated from her own family and friends after she was forbidden to use a mobile phone to contact anyone, forcing her to do it in secret whenever she had a rare opportunity to do so.

“I had to escape to save myself and to try my luck in the UK, even though I had to hide because we don’t have rights here. I’m still scared but I have to try and take my chances,” she said.

Despite such cases, however, the British government has consistently defended its decisions over the tightening of the domestic workers visa, part of an ongoing wider clampdown on immigration in the UK.

The Home Office previously told ABS-CBN Europe that the changes were necessary to “return the temporary route to its original purpose,” and to also prevent abuse of the UK immigration system.

In a statement earlier this year, a spokesperson from the Home Office said: “Rather than increase the risk of abuse, the measure was designed to stop abusive relationships between employers and their domestic workers being imported into the UK. Employers must prove they have a positive relationship with their member of staff, and any person known to have previously abused a worker will not able to bring employees to the UK.”

It also stated that migrant domestic workers “have access to protections under UK employment laws” and that there are a “range of options available” for those who seek protection, such as the National Referral Mechanism for victims of human trafficking.

That said, government policies largely depend on the political climate and the ruling party of the day. And with UK elections looming in 2015, campaigners and politicians are both keen to put these issues on the agenda.

In a recent segment from ABS-CBN Global’s news magazine program, Juan EU Konek, Shadow Immigration Minister David Hanson indicated his support for the fight of migrant domestic workers against modern slavery.

The Member of Parliament (MP) from the opposing Labour Party said that if they were elected back into power in 2015, they will “make sure that the old type of visa is restored for domestic workers,” and even branding the current visa system as “unfair”.

“We will change the system back, if we’re elected, to what it was prior to April 2012,” he said. “We opposed the change at the time. What’s proved since that time is there’s been an increase in people not being paid, an increase of people getting accommodation only and no salary, an increase in abuses, and that to me is wrong for the people who are working."

He also described such abuses as “a form of slavery” that need to be “examined” for any potential changes that could be made through better government policies.

“We’re in the 21st century. We’re sitting here today in a modern, vibrant city like London, and I don’t think it’s fair that we bring people from the other side of the world to a city like London and don’t pay them a salary for their work. That is wrong. And we need to change the system to ensure that they have the opportunity as workers themselves to be paid, to have the flexibility to move, and not to be tied to an employer who can potentially abuse them,” he explained.

Slavery is once again becoming a key topic in British politics and media with the development of the Modern Slavery Bill currently going through Parliament.

Supported by several political parties, the bill aims to tackle modern slavery in the UK, which affects thousands of adults and children victimized by human trafficking, forced labor, exploitation through the sex trade, forced criminal activity, and abuses through domestic servitude.

If successful, the bill will strengthen UK law and will enable authorities to address modern slavery cases more effectively through better definitions of relevant crimes and appropriate sentences for perpetrators.

A committee appointed to scrutinize the bill also called on the government to provide better protection for victims of human slavery, including suggestions to “revisit recent domestic worker visa rule changes that have ‘unintentionally strengthened the hand of the slave master against the victim of slavery.’”