Freedom next time: Sir Mo Farah's story proves modern slavery is still rife in the UK
Last month, Sir Mo Farah bravely announced he was brought to the UK at the age of nine, had his name changed, was given fake travel documents, and was forced to work as a domestic servant.
His experience highlighted the reality of modern slavery in the UK, but his story is only one of many migrant domestic workers enslaved in UK homes as cleaners and caretakers.
Jasmine* left the Philippines in 2019 to work for a family in Kuwait. When she met her employers for the first time, all of Jasmine’s documents, including her passport, were taken away.
Each day, Jasmine tended to the needs of the family – cleaning, cooking, washing, doing homework, and getting ready for bed. “The kids were so naughty,” Jasmine said. “They didn’t respect me as their worker. They hit me and threw their clothes in front of my face.”
"In 2021, 10,627 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the National Referral Mechanism, a 52% increase in referrals as compared to 2018"
After a year of working for the family, the male employer started to sexually abuse Jasmine consistently. “I was so scared but couldn't do anything because he threatened to put me in jail if I told his wife or anybody. His wrongdoings made me cry every night when I was alone. I couldn’t even tell my family because I didn't want them to worry about my situation. I followed whatever he said just to finish my contract.”
Even though her contract was due to end in 2020, Jasmine was told by the family that they would be taking her to London with them. “They processed my papers without my knowledge,” Jasmine said. “I never saw the documents.”
Once in London, Jasmine resumed her duties and continued to endure the abuse from the male employer, as in Kuwait. A little over a year after her arrival in the UK, Jasmine met a member of The Voice of Domestic Workers in Hyde Park Corner while she took care of the children. “I was given a chance to talk to the woman from The Voice of Domestic Workers with sign language because my employer was looking at us,” Jasmine remembered.
“They told me before that I am not allowed to talk to anyone. I got her Facebook account and contacted her to say I needed help. She referred me to the group. I talked to them and asked them to help me escape. The Voice of Domestic Workers came, and I escaped with them through the window at midnight.”
Jasmine was a victim of modern-day slavery, in the form of domestic servitude, severely exploited for the gain of her employer.
In 2021, 10,627 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the National Referral Mechanism, a UK framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support – a 52 percent increase in referrals as compared to 2018. Furthermore, 90 percent of those referred received a positive decision, meaning there were reasonable grounds to believe they were victims of modern slavery.
Even though domestic servitude is included in those figures, charities working with migrant domestic workers who commonly have come to the UK on an Oversees Domestic Worker (ODW) visa, say that many of their cases of exploitation and modern slavery have not been recognised under the National Referral Mechanism.
"In 2012, Theresa May revoked the Overseas Domestic Worker visa concession, which allowed domestic workers to switch employers, register these changes with the Home Office, and apply for extensions of stay and settlement... The decision stripped the rights of domestic workers and has led to increased exploitation and enslavement"
In 2019, there were more than 23,000 ODW visas issued by the Home Office. “Migrant domestic workers come from different countries, where they worked as domestic workers in private or diplomatic households before coming to the UK,” said Marissa Begonia, a domestic worker, mother of three, and founder of The Voice of Domestic Workers. “Before coming to the UK, they are often already suffering from different forms of abuse, including rape.”
Upon arriving in the UK, a domestic worker is typically given a six-month ODW visa, which would have likely been sorted for them by their employer.
“They apply for their visas in the British embassy and are forced to sign documents that they aren’t allowed to read,” Marissa added. “They may have been given some leaflets but not information about their rights in the UK.”
Many of them have their passports confiscated by their employers before their entrance into the UK. “They come to the UK heavily guarded by employers and are told to lie in front of officers at UK immigration Borders.”
In 2012, Theresa May revoked the Overseas Domestic Worker visa concession, which allowed domestic workers to switch employers, register these changes with the Home Office, and apply for extensions of stay and settlement.
Since 2012, visas are only valid for six months at a time and domestic workers are tied to individual employers as sponsors and are unable to freely switch employers – even in cases of modern slavery.
The decision stripped the rights of domestic workers and has led to increased exploitation and enslavement of domestic workers.
Following the 2012 changes to ODW visas, domestic workers felt they couldn’t quit their jobs without becoming undocumented and risking deportation having overstayed their six-month visa. Even though they are working for abusive, exploitative employers, migrant domestic workers feel trapped in a system that doesn’t support them to escape.
It isn’t only those who come on ODW visas who become victims of domestic servitude.
In 2008, Souma* fled to the UK from Pakistan to escape her ex-husband, his family, and her own family. “In Pakistan, women don’t divorce their husbands,” said Souma, who had done that very thing.
She left her job as a chemistry teacher to travel to England in hopes of finding work in the same field. “I was looking for somewhere to live as a tenant, and this Pakistani family had put their number in a shop window,” Souma recalls.
She contacted them and began living with the family, whose little girl took to Souma, something she appreciated as her husband had taken her own daughter away and wouldn’t let Souma see her.
As Souma’s visa started to run out, she worried about how she would be able to legally stay in the country. “The woman I lived with worked for the police, she said she knew about immigration, and that they had a good solicitor,” said Souma, who had started doing all of the childcare and housework for the family.
“They said they had put all my paperwork into the Home Office so I should let them sort out my visa. Whenever I asked the solicitor, he said everything was alright. I knew that people wait years for answers from the Home Office, so I believed them. And she worked for the police, so I didn’t think anything was strange.”
But over time, the parents, in particular the wife, became abusive toward Souma. “They beat me, physical abuse in front of their own children,” she recounted. “They were very low people. I lost all my confidence, all my self-trust,” she said.
"In a 2019 survey from The Voice of Domestic Workers, it was found that 77% of migrant domestic workers surveyed had experienced physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
The family told Souma she would need to find additional work, on top of continuing her duties at home, so she could pay rent. “I took some cleaning jobs. It was difficult to work, and I didn’t have any papers, so people didn’t treat me with any respect,” she said.
Souma paid the family rent for two years, but after a while, she couldn’t get enough work and had to work extra for the family. “They said I owed them £20,000 in unpaid rent so I had to work for them,” Souma said. “They wanted me to do all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and childcare. But I had no money, no shelter, no relatives,” she said. “Where was I to go? I was in their hands.”
For seven years, Souma lived with the family, who abused her and spread rumours that she was a prostitute and thief, further isolating Souma. “They took away my rights,” she said. “They put me down, they broke me. I was completely shattered and broken. I thought I should jump into the water and end my life.”
It was only when social services became involved following a parental dispute over the care of the children, both of who were disabled, that Souma opened up about the conditions she had been living in.
She was taken into a City Hearts safehouse, where she was finally safe. “On my first day, my caseworker told me I was very precious,” Souma remembered. “I cried so much. No one had said a kind word to me in seven years.”
Is domestic work always modern slavery?
In the Voice of Domestic Workers 2019 survey, it was found that 77 percent of migrant domestic workers who had been surveyed had experienced physical, verbal, or sexual abuse; 51 percent reported that they were not given enough food at work and 61 percent said that they were not given their own private room in their employer’s house.
“And many of them are not paid,” Marissa added. “Then there are those who are being paid, but very low wages.”
Domestic work is not defined as modern slavery, but in many cases, Marissa would argue that most migrant domestic workers in the UK are victims of modern slavery.
What needs to be done to protect migrant domestic workers?
For migrant domestic workers who enter the country on an ODW visa, Marissa adamantly argues for the restoration of the domestic worker rights that existed before 2012.
“If the government is serious about ending modern slavery and trafficking, then restore the rights that were stolen from migrant domestic workers in 2012,” she says. “When the Government scrapped all these rights, domestic workers found themselves being repeatedly abused and at the hands of many exploitative employers.”
City Hearts, the charity that supported Souma following her experience of domestic servitude, thinks there should be easily accessible education on employment laws in the UK. “Specifically education on hours you can legally work, signing contracts and minimum wages in the UK, and support systems and knowing where to turn for help if needed,” said Charlie Bentham of City Hearts.
Once a migrant worker has fled or has been rescued from modern slavery, they need support to help them heal and recover following their experience of trauma. Charlie would like to see survivors have access to “a safe place to reside whilst they process what they have experienced and statutory, counselling, medical, and legal, and criminal justice services.”
Lauren Crosby Medlicott is a freelance features writer specialising in social justice issues.
Follow her on Twitter: @LaurenMedlicott