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Dignity Not Destitution: victims of slavery trapped in cycles of destitution by restrictive policies on work

October 15, 2019

By Avril Sharp of Kalayaan

Imagine. You make the heart wrenching decision to leave your loved ones and migrate abroad for work. You leave behind everything and everyone you know in the hope you can earn a decent wage and provide for your family, your children, your spouse, your elderly parents. You hope you can pay for their education, their health needs, rent, and food for them to eat.

You arrive in a foreign land. The conditions are not what you were told you would be working in. You are forced to work 18-hour days with no breaks, you have insufficient food, you feel weak and tired but your employer shouts at you that you are lazy and they paid good money to an agency to hire a domestic worker. You ask for your wages and to be able to call home to speak with your family but you’re told a phone call home will cost you a reduction in your wages. At the end of a whole month of 18-hour days, you get to send £200 home to your family.

Unfortunately, this is the reality facing migrant domestic workers all over the world. In the UK, Kalayaan, a small charity in West London supports, advises and campaigns directly alongside migrant domestic workers to improve their employment rights and prevent exploitation. Sadly, once workers arrive in the UK, their difficulties don’t end. Workers trapped in abusive and exploitative employment can take time to gather courage to escape. When they do, their visa doesn’t permit them to access any form of support, such as unemployment benefit, so they are at real risk of destitution and homelessness.

Workers first, victims second

Migrant domestic workers apply for a visa to accompany or join their employers when they visit the UK. If successful, they are granted a visa for 6 months. The UK government recognises that they are a vulnerable group, so issues workers with an information sheet explaining their rights when they attend a centre abroad to process their UK visa. But unfortunately, evidence compiled by Kalayaan demonstrates this is not routine practice. The result is that workers do not know what help is available in the UK if they need to flee.

Many workers who come to Kalayaan are victims of severe labour abuses, amounting to modern slavery. The majority do not have possession of their passport when they come to us and do not know anything about their visa, including when it expires. Kalayaan can refer workers we assess as potential victims of modern slavery to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK framework for identifying and supporting victims, but the majority do not want to identify as victims. They are workers. For them, their focus is finding alternative employment so they can continue supporting their families back home.

Punished by a system meant to protect them

The UK has a restrictive policy on allowing migrants to work. For migrant domestic workers who are potential victims of slavery, only those whose visa is still valid when they enter the NRM and get their initial decision that there are ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe they could be a victim (which should be made 5 days after a referral is received) can have their leave extended and permission to work. Those who receive confirmation that they are potential victims but get that initial decision after their visa has expired do not have permission to work. They are forced to rely on state support and survive on £35 a week. That’s £35 to cover food, travel, access to a counsellor, to see their lawyers and to report to the Home Office. Every worker we support tells us it is not enough to survive. Some have to resort to food banks to get by.

Kalayaan has produced research exploring the impact the denial of work has on migrant domestic workers stuck in the NRM and their families abroad. Those without permission to work reported feeling worthless, subservient and punished by a system designed to protect them.

Ahead of Anti-Slavery Day 2019, Kalayaan has written an open letter to the Immigration Minister to ask that she review this hostile policy and allow all migrant domestic workers permission to work whilst in the NRM. We call on her to allow workers to live in Dignity not Destitution: let them work, which will assist in their recovery and help their loved ones. The alternative is to keep them trapped in limbo, reliving their ordeal with nothing to do, or pressure them into informal and exploitative work. Just imagine.


Kalayaan’s research, Dignity, not Destitution: the impact of differential rights of work for migrant domestic workers in the National Referral Mechanism can be found here.

If you would like to join Kalayaan in their asks and back their call for change, please contact Avril Sharp, Policy Officer for Kalayaan at [email protected]