By , on 14 July 2011
Human Rights at UCL
By Virginia Mantouvalou, on 26 September 2012
On Tuesday 25 September, US President Barack Obama gave a powerful talk on human trafficking, describing abuses of workers’ rights as modern slavery. Obama undertook the commitment to make this a matter of priority for his administration. ‘We see you’, he said. ‘We hear you. We insist on your dignity’.
Setting workers’ rights at the top of the agenda and classifying their abuse as modern slavery has much symbolic power. This is particularly so when coming from the President of a country that has been scarred by slavery historically. ‘I do not use the word “slavery” lightly’, Obama said. And he went on to explain: ‘When a man, desperate for work, finds himself in a factory or on a fishing boat or in a field, working, toiling, for little or no pay, and beaten if he tries to escape — that is slavery. When a woman is locked in a sweatshop, or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving — that’s slavery.’
Obama is not alone in classifying present-day labour abuses as slavery. Organisations such as the International Labour Organisation and the Council of Europe have also adopted this position. The European Court of Human Rights itself brought the issue to the forefront of discussions in Europe. In Siliadin v France (2005), the abuse of a young migrant woman employed as a domestic worker was held to be servitude. In Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia (2010), the abuse of a young migrant woman, victim of sex trafficking, was held to be slavery. The position of the Court is that state authorities have a duty to criminalise this behavior, to protect and support victims, to investigate allegations, and other such issues. Against this background, the European Union adopted a Directive on Human Trafficking, and issued a Strategy towards the Eradication of Trafficking by 2016. The UK enacted legislation criminalizing human trafficking and modern slavery.
That grave labour exploitation of workers has been set at the top of the agenda, in Europe and the US, can only be welcomed. The recognition that workers’ rights are human rights, and that their breach is an affront to dignity, is an important start. The political will seems to be there. Yet the eradication of modern slavery will be no easy task. Present-day slaves are hidden. They work in private homes, in isolated agricultural areas, in factories in remote countries. They may wish to remain invisible to the authorities. They are in desperate need of jobs and may be fearful of deportation. We have to take firm steps to discover the victims and help address their abuse. But the recognition that the problem exists is no small achievement, so it is rightly celebrated as such.
By Elizabeth Milner, on 2 March 2012
On Wednesday 29 February the UK Government announced new immigration rules, governing, among other issues, the visas of migrant domestic workers accompanying foreign visitors and diplomats. The rules provide that a domestic worker accompanying a visitor can stay for no more than six months, cannot settle in the country, be accompanied by dependents or change employer. Those that accompany diplomats can stay with them for up to five years. They may have dependents, but again have no right to change employer.
Tying a migrant domestic worker to a particular employer can lead to situations of modern slavery, as Kalayaan and Anti-Slavery International, both London-based NGOs working on migrant domestic workers, underlined. It is no secret that this group of workers, particularly when they are live-in, is very prone to abuse. Living and working in private households, they are invisible to the authorities. A recent report produced by Kalayaan said that in 2010, 60% of those who registered with it were not allowed out unaccompanied, 65% had their passport withheld, 54% suffered psychological abuse, 18% suffered physical abuse or assault, 3% were sexually abused, 26% did not receive adequate meals, and 49% did not have their own room. Their working conditions were exploitative: 67% worked seven days a week without time off, 58% had to be available ‘on call’ 24 hours, 48% worked at least 16 hours a day, 56% received a weekly salary of £50 or less (M Lalani, Ending the Abuse, Kalayaan, 2011, p 10).
In the face of calls for regulation of domestic work in national and supranational fora, the Government did the very opposite. With the new rules, if a domestic worker leaves the employer to escape abuse, she will either remain in the country as an irregular migrant, or be deported. The fear of deportation will probably make them prefer to remain invisible victims of exploitation. Read the rest of this entry »
A ‘wriggling’ concern: The Government, the European Court of Human Rights and the rule of law written by Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia
By Elizabeth Milner, on 7 December 2011
Observers of the government’s stance with regard to its European human rights obligations will have noticed there is something going on. To get what is going on one has to understand the difficult position in which the Conservative part of the coalition government has found itself when it comes to human rights in the UK. The UK is signatory to European Convention on Human Rights, and subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in interpreting the Convention rights. The Human Rights Act (1998) incorporated the convention rights directly into UK law. Judges in the UK in precedent setting cases have decided, rightly, that they are bound by ECHR jurisprudence as a bottom limit, a ‘floor’, on what protections they should give domestically. But they did not stop there. They also decided that they should not go too far beyond the Strasbourg court’s decision by giving more generous human rights protections at home, even where it might be warranted. They do, after all, come from a judicial tradition that works fundamentally on precedent. At the same time, the right wing of the Conservative party and its own ministers, viz the ‘cat-gate’ incident with Theresa May at the Tory party conference, have been pressing for the leadership to come good with its pre-election and post-election promises on the Human Rights Act. The inability to freely deport people it deems undesirable when this would violate their human rights has become emblematic of the government’s dissatisfaction with its ECHR obligations. This and the scandalous level of media misrepresentation of the effects of the act, have added to pressure on the government to do something. Read the rest of this entry »
By Elizabeth Milner, on 10 November 2011
The reasons why the riots took place are complex, but not complicated. Likewise, explaining why the riots occurred needs a sophisticated response; it is not simply either poverty or criminality. Such dichotomies serve to erroneously categorise a heterodox group of people and the reasons that led to the rioting. Such different reasons for individual participation mean that if the government wants to take these issues seriously then it needs a multifaceted response. In many ways, the riots represent the culmination of a perfect storm of factors which have increased the probability of violence. Understanding these factors does not mean condoning them, but provides some insight about how such events might be prevented in the future. A more nuanced understanding of these events comes not from ideological posturing, but through distilling a lot of the research in political science and sociology. To be sure, I think each of three sets of reasons listed below explains different motivations for why the riots took place. Read the rest of this entry »