'It was like jail': Domestic workers face cycle of exploitation in lockdown London

'It was like jail': Domestic workers face cycle of exploitation in lockdown London
6 min read
04 August, 2020
The Covid-19 pandemic has left domestic workers for wealthy Gulf families increasingly vulnerable to ill treatment and abuse.
Domestic workers in the UK have faced increased exploitation during the Covid-19 pandemic. [Getty]
Despite the lifting of lockdown restrictions in the United Kingdom, Rosa* still barely leaves her friend's house, where she has been staying since March.

"It's very difficult. If another wave [comes], it's very hard. Again, I have to be stuck in the house," she told The New Arab over the phone.

Rosa travelled to London three years ago as the maid of a wealthy family from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She said her employers expected her to work seven days a week with barely any time to rest as she cared for the family's young children, including an infant. 

While her contract with the agency that hired her in the Philippines was for $400 a month, her wages were in fact half that amount and were at times withheld for months on end. Her employer would often shout and verbally abuse her. 

"They treated me like I was in a jail. I got depressed and started to get my asthma in that country," she said. "They didn't give me proper food and I didn't have time to have a proper rest. Every time I asked to go to the church I wasn't allowed."

Rosa has since been recognised as a potential victim of modern slavery through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK government's framework for victims of human trafficking and severe exploitation. Because her visa had expired by the time she was recognised, it is a criminal offence for her to work.

Workers who are potential victims of domestic servitude, a form of forced labour, are left vulnerable by the UK's 'hostile environment' immigration rules

The government provides victims with £39.60 a week to survive in one of the world's most expensive cities. Many domestic workers end up taking on informal work, and when the pandemic hit, they found themselves stranded with no support.

In 2019, the UK government issued just over 21,000 Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visas. Each year, about half of these are given to women from the Philippines, mostly arriving with families from Gulf countries under the kafala sponsorship system, which ties domestic workers' visas to their employers. This dependency is known to facilitate abuses.

Read more: Ethiopian domestic workers abandoned by
employers as Lebanon's economy flatlines

Since 2012, ODW visas for domestic workers of foreign employers are issued for a maximum of six months and are non-renewable. The visa initially tied the worker to the employer they travelled with. If they quit, domestic workers faced becoming undocumented.

This only formally changed in 2015 with the Modern Slavery Act, when domestic workers were allowed to change employment while their visa was still valid. But frontline workers and researchers have argued that the visa is still de facto tied to the employer. 

"Of course, who is going to hire a domestic worker for two months if they are not able to renew their visa?" Virginia Mantouvalou, Professor of Human Rights and Labour Law at UCL Laws, told The New Arab. "It makes you wonder how different the ODW visa is to the kafala visa." 

Former prime minister and then home secretary Theresa May touted the Modern Slavery Act as "landmark legislation" at the time it was passed. The aim of the bill was to make it easier to prosecute perpetrators and protect victims.

But critics have argued that domestic workers who are potential victims of domestic servitude, a form of forced labour, are left vulnerable by the country's "hostile environment" immigration rules. When the pandemic hit, recognised and potential victims were left struggling to survive with no access to welfare, or forced to accept harsh conditions in order to be able to continue supporting their families back home.

They treated me like I was in a jail. They didn't give me proper food and I didn't have time to have a proper rest

Since the lockdown began, Aulia* hasn't been allowed to leave the home of the elderly man she cares for due to his frail health. The Indonesian national was brought to London from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and applied to the NRM in the autumn of 2018. She is appealing the Home Office's decision to reject her claim and continues to work in order to send money back to her family, despite the trauma it brings. 

"I came from the place where for almost three years I am locked in the place," said Aulia, her voice about to break. "I don't have a day off. We can't talk to anybody. It reminds me of my past employer in Riyadh."

Read more: Covid-19 lays bare Britain's entrenched racial inequalities

Before the lockdown her work conditions weren't great either. She was working from 8am to midnight six days a week for £1,600 per month, far below the national minimum wage. That wage was reduced during lockdown, when she had to borrow money from members of the community to send back home to her mother and three children, with the promise she would pay them back. 

"I am scared that I can't have a job and I can't send money for my children and my family," said Aulia. "It's hard to find a new job especially now with the pandemic. I am trying to ask [around] if they have a job offer, but most of the domestic workers are without [a] job."

None of the measures introduced by the government during the pandemic have safeguarded against the real risks faced by migrant workers 

The conditions of Aulia's visa are that she can work in a private household with no access to welfare, severely limiting her options to quit. For now, her only entertainment consists of online classes provided by the Voice of Domestic workers, a support group that assists exploited workers in rebuilding their lives.

In ordinary times, the organisation also engages in outreach work, approaching potential victims in parks in high-end neighbourhoods to make them aware of their rights in the UK. That mostly ground to a halt during lockdown.

Read more: Gulf migrant workers count the cost of

"We do rescues, go wherever they are. It could be hotels, houses. We couldn't do that physically," said Marissa Begonia, the organisation's coordinator.

"Since the pandemic hit the UK, we have received a number of reports from workers who have been dismissed from jobs, and with no entitlement to support, have been left destitute," Avril Sharp, policy and casework officer at Kalayaan, a charity that assists domestic workers, told The New Arab. "We have also had reports of workers forced to work increased hours or face losing their income and accommodation," she added.

"The terms of the UK Overseas Domestic Worker visa are that workers work full time and do not have recourse to public funds," Sharp said. "None of the measures introduced by the government during the pandemic have safeguarded against the real risks faced by migrant workers who have no recourse to public funds."

A study conducted by the University of York and the Voice of Domestic Workers found that only eleven percent of the 539 domestic workers surveyed had consented to be referred to the NRM. The rest had just become undocumented after leaving their employers.

"This group is even more exposed to the risk of exploitation as they try to find alternative means to survive," Sharp said.

*names have been changed

Ylenia Gostoli is a London-based journalist who previously reported from the West Bank and Rome.

Follow her on Twitter @YleniaGostoli