The UK government has refused to reinstate the overseas domestic worker visa and received significant backlash from campaigners for failing to protect migrant domestic workers from abuses.
With the support of MP Jess Phillips, the Voice of Domestic Workers and Kalayaan, organisations that support migrant domestic workers, started a petition in November, calling on ministers to bring back the 2012 Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visa.
The ODW visa applies to cleaners, chauffeurs, cooks, nannies and anyone else providing household support to families. Before the rule changes in 2012, domestic workers could extend their visas and were entitled to government support.
Domestic visa rules promote abuse
Their petition closed on the 26th of February, and by the 5th of March, the government announced that it ‘does not intend to reinstate the visa category for Domestic Workers in a Private Household, which closed to new arrivals in 2012.’
After the 5th of April 2012, foreign domestic workers can only apply for a six-month visa after working with the same household for over a year but this cannot be renewed. Campaigners say being tied to an employer prevents workers from protecting themselves from abuses.
Organisations like Kalayaan have been compiling evidence against the changes for almost a decade. Their research shows a direct inverse between legal recognition of their rights under the route and abuse and exploitation by employers. In 2013, 74% of those who entered on the tied visa and went to Kalayaan for support reported psychological abuse.
The government permits domestic workers to apply for different visas, however, the fees can be expensive and they may not qualify. Overseas domestic workers also receive no recourse to public funds, forcing them to become financially-reliant on potentially abusive employers.
‘The government does not intend to reinstate the visa category for Domestic Workers in a Private Household, which closed to new arrivals in 2012’
The main aim of the initial campaign was to change the law to allow domestic migrant workers to renew their visa and receive government support.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants also stood in solidarity with the domestic migrant workers, describing the government’s decision as ‘abysmal.’ They also stated, ‘our visa rules promote abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers, and the government knows this.’
Marissa Begonia, a domestic worker and director of The Voice of Domestic Workers, discussed the call for visa changes. ‘Domestic workers must be allowed to renew their visas and settle in the UK’, she said.
‘Our visa rules promote abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers, and the government knows this’
The visa restrictions are not the only issue, as abuse revelations have reportedly increased during COVID-19. In the UK, overseas domestic employees have continued to work illegally during the lockdown, as many were desperate without income or have been forced by their employers.
Migrant domestic workers exploited, not trafficked
The VDW has supported its members by setting up a Covid-19 Hardship Fund, which accepted donations to provide financial support, food, medicine and PPE to migrant domestic workers. The support is welcomed by workers who work extremely long hours in unsafe environments where mask-wearing and social distancing is discouraged.
Domestic migrant workers have also reported incidents where they have worked tirelessly all day and night for under minimum wage with little food or sleep. Some domestic cleaners have even been tricked into working under the false pretences that nobody would be in the home. This has resulted in them developing COVID-19 symptoms, which have been ignored by employers who have forced them to continue working.
Migrants working in these environments trapped, as quitting could result in deportation, which could be detrimental to refugees who have escaped dangerous situations. Those who report their circumstances must also prove they have been trafficked.
If proven, they will no longer be allowed to work and receive national asylum support allowance of just £39.60 per week. Foreign workers are currently only allowed to see employment when their visa is approved, which could take up to three years.
If a domestic worker cannot prove they have been trafficked, then the chances of deportation increase after the six-month visa expires. Avril Sharp, Legal and Policy Campaigns Officer at Kalayaan, described this rule as ‘a problematic response.’
We (Kalayaan) have lots of people come to us who have been exploited but haven’t been trafficked
Avril Sharp also explained that many workers end up being trafficked back into the UK after their visa expires, along with losing ‘the basic fundamental right that will keep them safe in the UK.’
Kalayaan has vowed that its campaigning is ‘far from over and is just us getting started’. They plan to announce the next stages of their work to fight for and support exploited migrant employees in private households across the UK.[Header image: Sunday Observer]