Invisible Women

In 2012 the Migrant Domestic Worker Visa was changed to one which ties workers to their employers- but this bid to reduce migration to the UK has untold consequences for the invisible women who do our domestic work behind closed doors.

When I arrive at the House of Commons for a panel discussion on the immigration rights of Migrant Domestic Workers, (MDWs) I’m stopped by two police officers. The road ahead is closed for the State opening of Parliament, security is going to be ultra tight. I haven’t got my invite to hand and I wonder if I’m going to be allowed past the cordon. Two other women are standing to the side, one talking anxiously into her phone in Filipino. I recognize the other, a young Nigerian domestic worker I’ve met at her ESOL class, and ask whether she and her companion are here for the discussion.
‘We are, but they won’t let us in,’ she replies.
I tell the police officer we’re here for a meeting in the Grand Committee Room.
‘OK’ he says, nodding towards the two women, and asking if they’re with me.
I say yes and without further ado he waves us through.

My identity card is the fact I am white, middle-aged and English speaking. I am given instant access to the House of Commons, no questions asked. My two companions, non-white non-English speaking women, one wearing a headscarf, are forbidden access. This is a meeting arranged to discuss their rights, to which they have been formally invited, but they struggle to pass the first barrier until I appear. None of us has shown an invitation.

I am afraid of the women’s resentment, or at least a mention of the irony of it, but neither woman seems shocked by this blatant display of prejudice. Together we go through the next security checks and into the committee room.

This vignette reveals first hand the disadvantages Migrant Domestic Workers put up with daily, sometimes without their even knowing it. Prejudice, restriction of movement, suspicion, invisibility.

We’re here to listen to a panel discussion hosted by Fiona Mactaggart MP on the effect of changing the Overseas Worker Visa from one which allowed MDWs to seek alternative employment if necessary, to the new visa which ties them to one employer- a year on from its introduction.

Until 2012 the Overseas Domestic Worker Visa, while stipulating workers could only take one full-time job in a private household in the UK, that they couldn’t claim benefits, and had to renew their visa annually, did mean workers who were subject to exploitation at the hands of their employers retained some bargaining power (threatening to leave to find better employment) and were able to seek assistance from groups such as Kalayaan (the charity campaigning for justice for domestic workers) if their positions didn’t work out.

The new tied worker visa, however, means migrants who flee unscrupulous employers become undocumented and therefore illegal. Tying workers to their employers effectively prevents them from challenging abusive treatment, or from ensuring their most basic rights are met.

Which would not be such a problem if domestic workers were not subject to such high levels of exploitation. Theories as to why this group of workers are particularly subject to abuse are inconclusive, but domestic work has always been undervalued, no doubt because it is usually undertaken by women or girls many of whom come from the most disadvantaged communities and who have to work in order to support other family members, children, siblings or elderly parents.

Domestic placements often takes these women far away from their own communities and families – and therefore support. The fact the work takes place inside private homes, is off the radar, and often involves women who might not read or write their employers’ language means when exploitation and abuse exist it often goes unreported or undetected. Poor employment practices are therefore perpetuated, since they exist in their own little bubble of amorality.

And while we may be familiar with stories of abusive practices happening ‘over there’ it is shocking to realise much of it goes on here, in Britain in the 21st century. According to Kalayaan, which is based in London, workers who have fled their employers report not having proper contracts, being underpaid or not paid at all, prevented from leaving the house unsupervised. Some are not given days off or holidays, many are forced to work long shifts, (one woman reported working from 6 am to 4am). Often they share bedrooms with children or sleep in studies, sitting rooms, or even laundry rooms.) At the extreme end of the spectrum, women report verbal and physical abuse.

Personal stories related by women at the conference and caught on film, make eye-watering viewing. Migrant domestic workers talk of the pain of leaving their own children behind – sometimes for years- to earn a living wage caring for another’s. As if this heart-wrenching sacrifice wasn’t painful enough, where they find themselves subject to sexual abuse, accused of damaging furniture they haven’t touched, forced to pay for transgressions they haven’t made, where they suffer lack of respect even from employers’ children such as being bitten or teased- they are, under the new visa, unable to seek help without losing their rights to be in this country.

What is particularly disturbing is that much of the more humiliating treatment is meted out on the workers by other women.

We assume rightly that in modern day Britain everyone should have access to decent, safe working conditions and fair pay. But the new tied domestic visa seems to be a retrogressive step, moving us not towards fairer employment practices but back, to, in some cases, degrading ones which would not have been tolerated even in the servant quarters of households in 19th century Britain.

According to the UK Border Agency’s instructions to its frontline staff in identifying victims of trafficking ‘A common indicator (of rights being violated) is withholding of passports or information about their rights as workers or visitors in the UK.’ Yet even when Migrant Domestic Workers are brought into the country legally on a tied visa they often lack of knowledge about their rights.

Kalayaan hears time and again reports about women having passports confiscated. However, worryingly, they report a drop in numbers of MDWs coming to them for support since the introduction of the new visa, which indicates women may be frightened of reporting such crimes, either due to ignorance or, because without documentation, they become illegal immigrants, and are understandably frightened of being criminalized for someone else’s crime.

The next morning, The Queen’s speech at the State Opening of Parliament targets immigration – presumably in the wake of UKIP’s success at the polls. The motive for changing the Migrant Domestic Workers Visa to the tied visa was to reduce net migration to the UK. But the proportion of women who come into the country as domestic workers is small – (0.5% of net migration generally) and the change in the visa has been hugely detrimental to this group, mostly women, who come to this country, not as parasites on the state, but as an invisible workforce; caring for our children, housekeeping, or looking after our elderly, and contributing silently to our economy, both by themselves ( where there is a proper contract) and by allowing their employers to work.

The replacement of the Overseas Worker Visa with the tied visa has meant these incredibly courageous women are frightened to report instances of abuse or exploitation. It means many women who we will probably never hear from because they are too afraid to speak out are tolerating working conditions in modern day Britain that in some cases contravene human rights. It means that in this particular quest to reduce immigration to our country we are inadvertently allowing a return to what amounts, in some cases, to modern day slavery.

As I leave the grand committee room and come out into the bright sunshine of a May evening in London, the pubs full of people drinking after work, I’m aware that the women I’ve come into the meeting with enjoy no such freedom.
Their treatment at the entrance to the House of Commons says it all.
I feel ashamed to have witnessed what I suspect they tolerate daily, a subtle ubiquitous discrimination that is endorsed by the tied visas they depend upon for their own and their families’ livelihood.