Working in the United Kingdom sounds appealing to many domestic workers, many of whom might accept an offer in a heartbeat.
When Myrna (not her real name), a single mother from the Philippines to work in Qatar, she shared the same vision with other women leaving home in favor of higher-paying jobs abroad: better life for children and that the sacrifice is worth making.
Working for a Qatari family, Myrna’s typical day started at dawn and ended past midnight revolving around cleaning, cooking and the well-being of her sponsors. She is allowed a day — just eight hours during daytime to be exact — off to have longer phone conversation with her children, go to remittance center, and go to church.
When Myrna’s bosses brought her to Britain, working conditions worsened. She was not given any time off, forced to sleep in a storeroom which she shares with two other maids. She was barred from leaving the house; even the garden was off limits to her.
Her ordealed went on until one day, she found her passport, kept by her employers, while cleaning. She escaped from her employer’s residence.
“I was prepared to do anything to provide for my children,” Myrna told staff from a London charity who later advised her.
Great Britain has passed an anti-slavery law in March to help address issues faced by migrant workers like Myrna.
However, critics say that the law barely helps thousands of foreign domestic workers as their visas are tied to their employers, making them vulnerable to abuse. The arrangement is similar to that of kafala system in Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Council states which requires all unskilled laborers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status.
“It’s very difficult for them to come forward and contact the authorities when their biggest fear is being deported back to their home countries and not being able to support their families,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Of the 53 million domestic workers worldwide, 83 per cent of them are women, accoring to the International Labour Organization.
Between 15,000 and 16,000 of them are brought to Britain every year – often to work as live-in cleaners, cooks, nannies, chauffeurs and gardeners for affluent individuals and their families. Another 200 visas are granted to those working for diplomatic households.
Many of these helpers share the same experience with Myrna: locked up by employers, paid below mandated by law, and subjected to physical and sexual abuse, advocates say.
“The private household is an odd employment place. You don’t need to have a licence. There are no checks. It’s completely unregulated,” said Kate Roberts, who works for Kalayaan, a charity campaigning to improve domestic workers’ rights.
She told Thomson Reuters Foundation that when domestic workers rely on employers for everything — immigration status, visa and job — they are in a vulnerable situation.
Under the previous system, domestic workers were allowed to change employer once they were settled in the UK. Now they no longer have the right to change employer, to bring dependants or to stay longer than six months.
Left with minimal to no other option, these helpers had to endure the exploitation or face the risk of becoming undocumented, loss of income and shelter.
A Home Office spokesman said the abuse of any overseas domestic worker was unacceptable, adding that Britain’s anti-slavery law included “protections” for workers who had been found to be trafficked such as leave to remain for six months.
“Victims of abuse should not be afraid to seek help – they will not be deported,” the spokesman said in a statement.