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Before and after: a brief account of how the UK Government stripped migrant domestic workers of their rights (and what to do about it)

June 17, 2024
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Kate Roberts

Head of Policy

Data published by Kalayaan on International Domestic Workers Day, 16 June 2024, details disturbing exploitation disclosed by migrant domestic workers who arrived in the UK on the Overseas Domestic Worker visa to members of staff at Kalayaan between 6 April 2008 to 6 April 2024. 

Reports to Kalayaan by the 2,080 workers who registered at Kalayaan during those 16 years show a dramatic increase of exploitation since changes were made to restrict the terms of the Overseas Domestic Worker visa 12 years ago, removing many of the rights and options for workers on this visa: 

  • 14% of workers who were issued a visa prior to 6 April 2012 presented with what Kalayaan (a designated First Responder) assessed to be indicators of trafficking. This rose to 40% of the workers issued a visa after 6 April 2012 and 41% of the workers issued a visa after 6 April 2016.
  • 52% of workers who were issued a visa prior to 6 April 2012 had no day off in the UK. This rose to 70% of workers issued a visa after 6 April 2012 and 66% of workers issued a visa after 6 April 2016.
  • 47% of workers who were issued a visa prior to 6 April 2012 did not have access to their passport in the UK. This rose to 73% of workers issued a visa after 6 April 2012 and 6 April 2016 respectively.

While it is horrific that migrant workers in the UK who register at Kalayaan are routinely reporting exploitation, it is even more disturbing that reported treatment has worsened since the immigration rules for Overseas Domestic Worker visa holders were changed in 2012 (with further changes in 2016) despite migrant domestic workers and their allies opposing these changes and warning that this would happen.  Migrant domestic workers and their allies have been campaigning  for a restoration of rights since changes to the Overseas Domestic Worker visa were introduced 12 years ago

While the original Overseas Domestic Worker visa, created in 1998, was the result of a long campaign by migrant domestic workers for legal recognition as workers, the changes to the visa, via the immigration rules, in 2012, restricted the terms of the visa. The April 2012 changes meant ODW visa holders entered the UK for 6 months on a non renewable visa which tied them to their employer who is also their visa sponsor. With no recourse to public funds, workers frequently rely on their employer for accommodation as well as employment, visa sponsorship and information about the UK. 

As Kalayaan’s data shows, restricting the options of ODW visa holders in this way resulted in an increase in already high reports of exploitation. These restrictions took place in the context of an increased focus on trafficking and modern slavery in the UK, and only a few years before the UK passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015. It is shameful that the basic rights of migrant domestic workers on the ODW visa, which had provided these workers with options to challenge exploitation or leave bad employment, were excluded from the Act. An amendment to reinstate rights was voted into the draft Bill by the House of Lords but removed again by the Commons. 

Bizarrely, one of the arguments made during the passage of the Modern Slavery Bill, against the reinstatement of rights for ODW visa holders was that domestic workers on the original visa were already reporting disturbing levels of exploitation. Rather than addressing the restrictions on the ODW visa and the lack of redress available to migrant domestic workers in the UK, a commitment was made to an independent review of the visa. The subsequent review recommended that all ODW visa holders should have the right to change employer, and to make this accessible, to be able to apply to renew their visa on the basis of ongoing employment for a period up to 2.5 years. Recognising the multiple dependencies on employers as being increased without access to information, there was also a commitment made to information about their rights in the UK. 

However rather than the recommendations of the review being implemented, only minor changes were made to the visa structure in 2016. ODW visa holders would be permitted to change employer, but not, unless they were found to have been trafficked, to apply to renew their visa, only those workers referred into the UK’s National Referral Mechanism as potentially trafficked would have options to extend their visa.These changes failed to address the risks of exploitation which remain inherent in the restricted ODW visa, the right to change employer remains inaccessible in practice as finding decent work in the domestic sector with a few months left on their visa and no option to renew is unlikely. Workers who are in exploitation are trapped by the restrictive visa framework until their exploitation reaches the threshold of trafficking by which time any prevention work is too late.  

Domestic workers are of course keenly aware of the limitations of the visa alone in preventing exploitation. Many have long been involved in organising migrant domestic workers in the UK and campaigning for the UK to sign and ratify ILO Convention189 for domestic workers. They know domestic work in private households to be a high risk sector but also know that further restricting the options for domestic workers through the immigration rules only makes things worse. Unfortunately, they have been proved right. 

The recent data on reports of exploitation published by Kalayaan is further evidence of the already well-established case for the urgent need to, as an urgent measure, revert the harm cause by this policy changes and reinstate the rights for migrant domestic workers in the UK contained in the original Overseas Domestic Worker visa. This will provide the foundation to ensure migrant domestic workers in the UK can exercise rights in practice. A well designed, proactive and accessible Single Enforcement Body (or SEB) for labour market enforcement and the ratification of ILO Convention 189 would support this, driving up standards and enabling redress. It’s beyond time to listen to migrant domestic workers and reinstate their rights.