Over 70 supporters of the Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW) campaign packed into a House of Commons committee room on 1st December 2015 to hear the latest news on what is being done to establish proper rights for migrant domestic workers. The meeting was sponsored by Fiona Mactaggart MP and organised by J4DW, Kalayaan and Unite the Union.
Despite the Modern Slavery Act introduced in March 2015, around 16,000 migrant domestic workers remain ‘tied’ to their employers by immigration rules with no rights whatsoever. Health & safety and other basic labour rights are non-existent. Many domestic workers are trafficked and have to endure physical and mental abuse.
Diana Holland, Unite Assistant General Secretary, chaired the meeting. She said “the impact of the new tied visa must be exposed” and called for the Conservative government to ratify ILO Convention 189. In 2012 the Conservative led coalition introduced a new visa that removed the right of migrant domestic workers to change employers – resulting in increased levels of abuse. ILO Convention 189 – Domestic Workers Convention – sets out clear terms and conditions of employment including a minimum wage, weekly rest times and right to join a trade union.
Fiona Mactaggart, chair of the All-Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking, spoke next. She said modern slavery could be ended if domestic workers “had the power to withdraw their labour”. Kate Roberts from Kalayaan gave an overview of the current situation and how the situation dramatically worsened with the introduction of the tied visa. Kalayaan is a London based charity that gives practical advice and support to migrant domestic workers. Kate described how domestic workers would have to break immigration law to escape from an abusive employer. She went on to say that the Immigration Bill, currently making its way through parliament, incorporates section 53 of the Modern Slavery Act, which does not offer protection for trafficked workers that have escaped.
James Ewins (Barrister) spoke on the review he has undertaken for the Home Office on the Overseas Domestic Worker Visa. He explained that he could not go into detail because the review had not been released yet for the public.
Marissa Begonia from J4DW read out an email from an ‘undocumented’ domestic worker that really spelt out the terrible plight of migrant domestic workers. Karin Pape, European Coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) said “why should domestic workers not have protection from abuse, harassment and violence … why should they not enjoy labour rights such as regulated working time and rest”. Sarbjit Johal from J4DW described the poor background of many migrant domestic workers, often in debt and with dependants to provide for. Many were working for rich families and diplomats in slave-like conditions. Their passports are often taken from them.
ILO Convention 189 was referred to many times during the meeting. So too was the ‘tied visa’ introduced by the Tory – led coalition in 2012. The Cameron government has shamefully refused to ratify ILO Convention 189 that would give migrant domestic workers fair terms of employment and protect their human rights. It makes a mockery of the government’s commitment to combating slavery in the UK.
As the meeting listened to first hand accounts of exploitation, abuse and denial of freedom, the question on everyone’s lips was, how can this be happening in 21st century Britain? The meeting drew to a close with an almost tangible steely determination amongst participants to step-up the campaign to fight for the rights of migrant domestic workers. Chair Diana Holland declared the meeting a relaunch of the campaign and called for everyone to redouble their efforts by getting behind the struggle being led by domestic workers themselves – to press the government to ratify ILO Convention 189 and reinstate the Overseas Domestic Worker Visa.