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Domestic slavery in the UK?

Luke Whitmore - Law on the Web

  1. 21 April 2015
  2. Miscellaneous
  3. 0 comments
Person in handcuffs

The coalition government has talked up its opposition to modern-day slavery, with Home Secretary Theresa May claiming back in 2013 that the eradication of the “abhorrent crime” was a “personal priority”.

But visa rules introduced in April 2012 tell a very different story – specifically, the debut of ‘tied visas’, which mean that the immigration status of foreign domestic workers is dependent on remaining with the employer they came to the UK with.

Tied visas and their consequences

If a worker who is in the UK on a tied visa leaves their original employer, they will be considered an illegal immigrant – they cannot legally change jobs or renew their visa themselves. This leaves migrant domestic workers dependent on their employers to stay in the country, even if they are being mistreated or abused.

15,000 such workers come to the UK every year in the form of household staff such as cooks, cleaners and nannies, accompanying their wealthy employers.

But some of these workers face deplorable conditions in which their employers withhold pay and food from them, force them to work extremely long hours, keep their passports from them, and in some cases psychologically or sexually abuse them.

And the tied visa system appears to be bolstering the position of abusive employers, forcing their workers to be far more dependent on them in order to remain in the country.

Under the old rules, which were in place until April 2012, domestic workers were granted temporary permission to live in the UK, which would eventually become a permanent right to settle. This meant that those who fled abusive employers did not risk immediate deportation and would be able to seek help.

The government says that it changed the rules to prevent an influx of unskilled migrant workers from leaving their jobs and remaining in the UK. They claim that foreign domestic workers are already protected from abuse by existing employment laws, and that they are sent a leaflet explaining their rights when they submit their visa applications.

Opposition to the tied visa system

Opponents to the government’s stance on tied visas say that this new approach isn’t working. They claim that mistreated workers are now afraid to seek assistance for fear of being deported.

There are also concerns that the stricter new rules are allowing employers to abuse household staff with impunity. Statistics from Kalayaan, a charity dedicated to helping domestic workers from overseas, seem to demonstrate that the outlook has worsened. Back in 2014 they found that:

  • 62% of workers on tied visas were not being paid at all, compared to 14% under the previous system
  • 96% of workers on tied visas were not allowed out without supervision, compared to 44% under the previous system
  • 74% of workers on tied visas had suffered psychological abuse, compared to 28% under the previous system

Despite this apparent decline in working conditions, the charity also noted that fewer workers had contacted them for help, suggesting that some may have resigned themselves to remaining in an abusive household, or gone into hiding after fleeing their employer to avoid being deported.

“The visa has definitely resulted in employers exercising more control over workers,” said Kate Roberts, a community advocate for Kalayaan. “We believe it facilitates and institutionalises the domestic servitude of workers.”

The future of tied visas

The debate over tied visas continues to rage. One man fighting the system is Lord Hylton, an independent peer, who is currently trying to have tied visas overturned. He argues that the government’s fear of domestic workers flooding into the UK from overseas is unfounded, as such workers don’t choose to enter the country but are instead brought here by their employers.

Hylton has proposed an amendment to the government’s Modern Slavery Bill which would allow foreign domestic workers in the UK to switch employers at will and grant those who had been victims of modern slavery a temporary visa to remain in the country.

The amendment found favour in the House of Lords, passing 183 votes to 176. However, it was subsequently rejected by the House of Commons, with MPs voting against it with 276 votes to 209. This means it must now be debated again in the House of Lords, needing approval from both houses before it can become law.

Whether the amendment will be accepted and the system of tied visas overturned is currently impossible to predict. The government opposes the proposal, claiming that the Modern Slavery Bill in its current form will do enough to combat mistreatment of domestic workers, with provisions such as life sentences for those who keep workers in servitude.

But critics have emphasised that if workers are subject to immediate deportation upon fleeing abusive situations, their employers may never be reported in the first place.

If you need help with worker rights, more information is available in our employment section.

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