Good Luck Proving Abuse: UK Ties Domestic Workers to Their Employers
In 2011, my employer told me she was moving to Lyon. I was a nanny at the time, living in Paris and taking care of a wonderful little girl named Alex. Although the family offered to help me relocate, I couldn’t leave my life in the city, and so instead I began the tedious search for new employment.
Having been used to the fair pay and good working conditions of my current family, I was not ready for what I’d be greeted with. While all the families I contacted demanded proper working papers (which I had), most wanted to pay me wages that were sometimes up to 10 Euros below what the French government mandated I should be paid, at minimum.
One American man contacted me about watching after his little boys. “The pay is 1000 Euros a month, but we give you a lot of vacation,” he bartered with me. I did the math, and not only was he asking me to watch two children for less than 7 Euros an hour (seriously how much were his children worth to him?) he also didn’t seem to realize that paid vacations were written into the French constitution. They are not a bartering point, they are a right.
Another family wanted me to go away with them to take care of their children in the Caribbean. Despite living on the top two floors of an expansive flat in the most expensive area of Paris, they wanted to pay me 300 Euros in total. Granted they paid for my food, and they paid for my plane ticket, but I wasn’t there to vacation, I was there to ensure the safety and protection of their children. Being on call 24 hours a day for two weeks for 300 Euros? Were they kidding?
This was a prevalent theme as I searched for work throughout the city. People, seemingly unconcerned with employment and wage laws wanted me to come and work for less than I made working at Wendy’s ten years prior. Luckily as a woman raised in the United States, I knew my rights and how to assert them. Yet, had my situation been considerably more desperate, I’d be open to the same exploitation that faces millions of women worldwide.
So it comes as no surprise that a recent report released by Human Rights Watch details the abuses suffered by migrant workers in the UK. While abuses of domestic workers is a problem throughout the world, with forced labor, unlivable conditions and passport abduction rampant, it is only in the UK that protection for these workers have recently been revoked.
Under a ‘tied visa’ program, migrant workers are no longer able to change jobs while working as domestic labor in the UK. Before, this was the easiest way for those in vulnerable situations to leave abusive employees. Charities, such as Kalayaan, were able to provide assistance to workers, without compromising their immigration status. Now, unless they can prove they are victims of trafficking, fleeing abusive employers leaves workers open to deportation.
HRW reports: “Under the new ‘tied’ visa… migrant domestic workers are now effectively ‘tied’ to their employer and risk becoming undocumented, removal from the UK, and exploitation if they leave an abusive situation. Several migrant domestic workers who had escaped cited fear of police discovering their undocumented status as the main reason they did not file a complaint…Meanwhile, abusive employers have even greater scope to mistreat and exploit domestic workers, knowing they cannot leave without becoming undocumented.”
Although the UK insists they have effective mechanisms in place to deal with domestic abuse, the report contradicts these findings. In interviewing 33 migrant workers, 23 have had their passport seized by their employer. Many others complained of living in squalid circumstances, without proper access to sanitation and medical care.
HRW has recommendations on how to tackle this issue. One suggestion includes harsh penalties for those mistreating domestic staff and migrant workers. However, another is simply to have British Government officials meet those with migrant worker visas at the airport, to explain their rights and the minimum wage inside the UK. They could also provide workers with resources in case abuse takes place.
For many, migrant domestic work is a fair and honorable way to make a living. They are given rooms, fair wages, time off and are able to send remittances home to help their families. However, for those who aren’t so lucky, we are obligated to put regulations in place that give these women safe havens and a right to continue working for the length of their visas validity. Otherwise we find ourselves in a position where the abusive employers fall under the safety net, leaving women, thousands of miles away from home, left to fend for themselves against the whims of their employees.