Mary’s employers refused to allow her to visit her Sri Lankan home despite her two years of constant service. The family she worked for would not give Mary – their domestic worker – just two weeks off in exchange for her 24-hour live-in labour, providing personal care and housekeeping duties. Instead she was rewarded with starvation, and forced to sleep in the sitting room.
Mary’s persistence finally won her the chance to return home to see her children. When she did so, her employer faked a police call. He accused her of burglary and demanded her return. When Mary discovered that this was fabricated she finally decided to leave. “You must work for us,” were the last words of her employer. Mary ran away.
As Mary struggles on a part-time cleaning job so that she can continue to send money home, two governments on two continents are making two very different laws. Recent statistics from the Sri Lankan government highlight the threat to the wellbeing of children under five years old who are left behind by mothers working abroad for long periods of time, and it is currently legislating to ban these mothers from working abroad. In Britain, where many migrant domestic workers come to earn money to support their children, the government is pushing a new piece of immigration legislation, part of its “Making Migration Work for Britain” strategy. This will reduce domestic worker visas to non-renewable, six-month, business-visitor visas, and make it illegal for them to change employers.
All existing rights, won in 1998 after a decade of campaigning, will be washed away. Low-skilled migrant workers are currently entitled to basic protection under British employment law, such as the National Minimum Wage, statutory holiday pay and a notice period for dismissal. They also have the ability to annually renew their working visas, and are entitled to apply for settlement after five years.
Back in the days of the Tories, domestic workers brought into the country by their employers were of a slave status. Workers who ran away from abusing employers faced deportation.
In the early 1980s the London-based Commission for Filipino Migrant Workers saw a growing number of women domestic workers asking for help with fleeing their employers. The support group Waling Waling (now the United Workers Association) was thus formed, and grew to 3,000 members in the late 1990s. They worked with Kalayaan, a migrant domestic workers’ campaign group formed in 1987, and the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G), to oppose this slave-labour system. The Labour Party promised change.
When it came into power, Labour was pushed to fulfil its promises. The status of migrant domestic workers was restored by immigration legislation in 1998, granting basic rights and regularising the status of a number of migrants who had been made undocumented under the earlier laws.
These changes were aimed at a specific group of workers, but were part of a set of immigration policies which proved to be the harshest in British history. These were followed by “Secure Border, Safe Haven” in 2002 and “Controlling our Borders” in 2005. Pandering to tabloid hysteria over immigration, each piece of New Labour legislation has made it more and more intolerable for those coming into Britain.
Current legislation gives migrant domestic workers a limited amount of protection, but barely a shred of security. This can be seen in the example of Devika, a Sri Lankan brought into Britain by a nursing home manager. Devika lived and worked with a family of four in Borehamwood, where she cooked and cleaned as well as looking after an 87 year old and two young children.
Before Devika started work, her employer told her the wages would be Â£250 a month. She bargained it to Â£300 per month, without knowing the wage level in Britain. Her employer and her family would not allow her time off or a room, and would often verbally abuse her. Worse still, they kept her passport from the first day and wrote their name in it without consent. “They invalidated my only ID,” Devika said.
Devika could not take the abuse any more and ran away last February. “It was snowing that day,” she said. “I cooked for them, and waited for everyone to leave the house. I left my letter under a pillow, and said goodbye to the children, which was hard for me because I looked after them for so long.
“I never dreamt of running away. Even when you paid me Â£300 a month, I said nothing. Even when you allowed me no time off, I didn’t complain,” she wrote in her letter. “But when you shouted at me, I couldn’t take it. Never in my life did anyone humiliate me in that way.”
When Kalayaan asked Devika’s employer to return her passport, they insisted that they had already returned it to the Home Office, which was untrue. Now Devika is undocumented. Her status was changed by her employer, but the need to send money home to support her children remains.
Reena also suffered horrific abuse and humiliation. She was brought to England to work for a well known celebrity in a three-storey country house in Gloucestershire. Her job was cooking for the family, cleaning ten rooms every day, doing the laundry and looking after a three year old boy. She asked for a contract, but her employer refused. “You should trust us,” she said.
The employer asked Reena to sign a confidentiality agreement in English, a language Reena was not experienced in reading. She signed the contract because the employer told her, “This is for you to get a visa to go to Switzerland with us.”
Since then Reena worked from 7am to 11pm, seven days a week. “They all had different menus for their four daily meals, and I cooked different dishes for everyone. Each meal was a big job,” she said. “Often they had huge parties, where I and another Indian worker had to cook for 200 guests.” Dining was a big event in that household, but Reena and her co-worker were rarely fed.
“We often had to eat while working because there was no break. We were yelled at all the time that we couldn’t stop working,” Reena recalls. “My boss raised her hand at me, threatening to hit me many times. She also shouted abuse at us, saying, ‘You Indians are stupid!'” The employer created a hierarchy inside the house where Reena had to cook and make the bed for the English nanny. “The treatment between us and the local nanny was completely different.”
Reena was promised a weekly wage of Â£270, but was never paid during her five months there. The employer kept her passport to prevent her from leaving the job. But her abusive behaviour forced Reena to make the decision to leave. “That early morning, she was yelling at us again. She said to me, ‘Get our breakfast ready within five minutes.’ I just thought to myself, enough is enough.”
Reena left. She didn’t know where to go, and spent the day in the local Tesco. Luckily, a friend in Swindon offered her a bed for the night. Later she asked again and again for her employer to return her passport, but the request was turned down. Instead she was told, “You are illegal. I’m going to report it to the Home Office.” Despite the fact that Reena was not illegal, this is a common intimidation measure used by employers. This situation continued into Reena’s second job, as a domestic worker at a jeweller’s six-storey house in St John’s Wood.
In her new employment, Reena relied on an apple and a banana for her daily food. She developed chest pain and dizziness at work as a result of starvation and over-working, and she wasn’t allowed to see a doctor. The host sexually harassed and molested her frequently, and his wife owed her wages of Â£10,000. When Reena asked for her P45, she was told that she was illegal. “Despite all this, I had to stay because I needed my employer’s statement to get my second visa.”
Both Devika’s and Reena’s experiences are widely shared among the 17,000 non-EU domestic workers who enter Britain every year. According to Kalayaan, 86 percent of domestic workers registered with Kalayaan during 2005-06 worked over 16 hours a day, 71 percent have been deprived of food, 32 percent had their passports withheld by their employers and 23 percent have been physically abused.
Demand for migrant labour is highly racialised in domestic work. Mary, Reena and Devika were employed because they are non-EU migrant workers. As Bridget Anderson from the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society at the University of Oxford points out, it is the flexibility, extremely low costs, and the employer’s power to retain, coupled with the necessity to stay in employment, that makes this section of workers so favourable to employers. Few EU workers can compete with these factors. As retention is maintained by workers’ immigration status, immigration legislation determines the degree of employers’ control over workers.
Now the government’s plans to overturn its own reforms will make it impossible for migrant domestic workers to challenge abuse and exploitation. “The six-month business visa means that we won’t be able to use Britain’s employment law to take abusive employers to tribunal, and won’t have enough time to get back our delayed or unpaid wages,” said Reena, now a T&G volunteer.
A form of slavery
Diana Holland, National Organiser for Women, Race and Equalities with the T&G, said the union is actively organising against the new immigration legislation. “We were involved in campaigning for migrant domestic workers’ rights throughout the 1980s and 1990s,” she said. “We celebrated strongly in 1998 when their rights were won. We are now deeply worried that the new proposals will encourage abuse and we are campaigning to bring this to the government’s attention to ensure basic protection for workers.” The union has over 600 members working as migrant domestic workers.
Kate Roberts, Kalayaan’s community support worker, said, “The removal of any option to challenge or leave an abusive or exploitative employer is in direct contravention to the Home Office’s stated policy of protecting victims of trafficking, which includes trafficking for labour exploitation.”
Without the basic freedom to at least leave abusive employers, domestic workers will be forced back to the days of bonded labour relations, effectively a form of slavery. When workers seek to break out of their exploitation by leaving their employers, they will automatically become illegalised. Illegalisation will guarantee that workers are further exploited and marginalised.
“The new law will give employers even more power than they already have, and will be very damaging, not only to our lives, but our children’s lives,” Mary said. Her son and daughter are missing her. They said to her, “Come back home! We don’t need that kind of money.” But Mary knows it is not possible to return home, because she is the only breadwinner.
Hsiao-Hung Pai writes for UK-Chinese publications and the Guardian. Some names have been changed.
I came from Mumbai, India. I have two daughters. My family knows nothing of what I have suffered here. I never told them because my daughters needed the money for their education.
I arrived in Britain as a domestic worker to a businessman and his wife. I was told that my salary was Â£20 per month. But I never received any money. My madam was very cruel. She hit me on my stomach and regularly tried to strangle me.
I worked 18 hours a day and was forced to sleep on the floor without a blanket. She kicked me every morning to wake me up. I had no winter clothes and no shoes and very little food to eat. When I put butter on my toast, madam came and took it from my hands, threw it away and hit me.
One day madam pushed my head into the gas flame. I struggled and freed myself. She got angry and threw me out of the house.
I stood outside the house crying and crying. My neighbour came to my rescue. I told her my story. She advised me to bring my clothes to her house and to meet her on Sunday outside the church. My neighbour met me and took me by car to Kalayaan.
When I reached the centre, people could see my swelling on my head and the nail marks on my neck. I had stayed with my employer for one year because I didn’t know where to go or whom to contact. My employer kept my passport. No case was brought against my employer.
Kalayaan helped me to get a new passport and my visa to stay in Britain. I was able to visit my daughters after eleven long years.
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