Immigration rules for domestic workers: a step closer to slavery, by Dr Virginia Mantouvalou

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.

That the Government decided to tie these migrant domestic workers to their employer, who may be violating their basic dignity and rights, might come as a big surprise. Or maybe not. Only in June 2011, the UK Government decided not to ratify the new International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 189 on Domestic Workers, which entered into force with wide international support (see further E Albin, V Mantouvalou, ‘The ILO Convention on Domestic Workers: From the Shadows to the Light’, (2012) 41(1) Industrial Law Journal).

At a time when there is grave disappointment at the ILO Convention not being ratified, and with two migrant domestic workers’ cases pending before the European Court of Human Rights (Kawogo v UK, App No 56921/09 and C.N. v UK, App No 4239/08), the position of the Government is enormously troubling. This is not only for its symbolism – the neglect for a category of most disadvantaged workers – but also practically, in light of the fact that several aspects of UK law already fall short of human rights requirements.