Modern Day Slavery in Britain
Not as rare as you might think
The news that three women kept as slaves by a couple for three decades is horrifying but not entirely surprising.
Two years ago the headline ‘Woman kept as slave by London Doctor’ caught my eye. This was the case of Mwanahamisi Mruke, 47, who arrived from Tanzania in October 2006, and had been incarcerated for four years, forced to sleep on the floor and to work 18 hour shifts for a retired doctor. I had associated people trafficking with men, and modern day slavery with prostitution and child labour. This looked different, more secretive, more sinister. The story fascinated and horrified me, not least because the doctor was a woman.
The more I looked into this story, the more I uncovered further cases of migrant domestic workers exploited or abused by their employers who might just as well be female as male. My research led me to a group ‘Justice for Domestic Workers’ run by a Phillipino woman who herself had experienced abuse and exploitation at the hands of her employers as a domestic worker, and who, on finally escaping her placement, joined J4DW the group established in the 80’s to support domestic workers who had come to the UK to work for families as maids or nannies and who instead found themselves treated as virtual slaves.
Conditions reported by women who seek the support of the group vary from those who might simply have been paid under the minimum wage to those who were not paid at all, or forced to pay off debts they had accrued in applying for the job and traveling in the first place. Some women had been made to share rooms with children, and in more extreme cases had had to sleep on the floor of rooms that had other uses during the day. Many of these women had had their passports confiscated by their employers so that they could not – or were afraid to – leave. In more extreme instances women reported being verbally and in some cases physically abused.
The question, -why don’t domestic workers who find themselves in exploitative situations just leave?- is complex and detectives say it might take some time for the conditions the Lambeth women were kept in to be established.
But one of the reasons mitigating against migrant domestic workers leaving exploitative employment in the UK is that the migrant domestic worker visa was changed in 2012 so that those arriving in the country to work as domestic help within a family are tied to the family they come to work for; migrants who flee unscrupulous employers become undocumented and therefore illegal. Given that they have often left desperate situations and accumulated debts in order to take on domestic work far from their own countries, going home is not an option either. (So many of the women come from the poorest areas of the Philippines – and have, to make matters even more tragic, lost children or other family members in the typhoon)
This leaves them trapped in the family they arrived with and vulnerable to abuse if it arises.
Tying workers to their employers effectively prevents them from challenging abusive treatment, or from ensuring their most basic rights are met.
Domestic placements often take 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.
According to Kalayaan, the London based group campaigning for justice for domestic workers –the most common complaints they receive from women who have managed to flee abusive employment- echo those of J4DW- women report not being given proper contracts, (stipulating pay and work hours,) being forced to work grueling hours (one woman had had to work from 6 am to 4am), not being given a day off, being underpaid or not paid at all. Shockingly it isn’t uncommon for woman to report that they were prevented from leaving the house unsupervised. Often they talk about being made to share bedrooms with children or to sleep in studies, sitting rooms, or even laundry rooms rather than being given their own space. Kalayaan hears time and again reports about women having passports confiscated.
One woman from Indonesia spoke to me of the pain of leaving her own children behind – ‘they ask me, if I phone, ‘when are you coming home mummy?–the house feels empty without you’’
She hadn’t seen them for two years.
Instead she had been caring for the children of a woman who made her put the rubbish out after dark, vacuum the house before dawn, and accused her of treating the house as her own if she so much as took a cup from a cupboard without permission.
As if the heart-wrenching sacrifice of leaving your own children behind sometimes for years- to earn a living wage by caring for another’s- wasn’t painful enough, where women find themselves 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 teased- or in one case I heard about, bitten and spat at- they are unable to seek help without losing their rights to be in this country.
However, since the introduction of the new tied visa, Kalayaan reports a drop in numbers of MDWs coming to them for support which they suspect indicates women may be frightened of reporting such crimes because without documentation, they become illegal immigrants. They tolerate poor conditions rather becoming illegal and criminalized for what is, in many cases, someone else’s crime.
The migrant domestic visa might not be the reason in this latest case for the fear the women in the Lambeth case must have felt about reporting their conditions, but it unquestionably contributes to the perpetuation of the idea that we can ignore the rights of people who come to work in our homes as domestic helps.
We assume that in modern day Britain everyone should have access to decent, safe working conditions and fair pay. But as this shocking latest case illustrates, there is a whole shadowy under world of domestic servitude existing within our own neighbourhoods that will continue to go unchallenged unless we address some of the underlying causes.