The COVID-19 pandemic has led to widespread recognition of the workers who perform vital jobs in our society, bringing to light that those jobs, such as cleaning and care, are very often performed by migrants working in poorly regulated sectors, where they are at risk of abuse and exploitation by unscrupulous employers. This is the case for migrant domestic workers in the UK, whose plight still remains largely unseen.
Domestic workers are one of the most invisible workforces, as working within the household means they often have very limited contact with other people so abuses often go unseen and therefore unchecked, increasing the employer’s power over them. Isolation is not the only issue. Working in a private household can lead to blurred lines of responsibility where a worker is hired for one task, such as looking after the children, but ends up progressively being made to undertake additional activities, such as the cleaning, cooking or washing, without being compensated for taking on more work.
In LAWRS’ 2019 report The Unheard Workforce: Experiences of Latin American migrant women in cleaning, hospitality and domestic work, we outlined the endemic exploitation that workers face in these sectors. The report highlighted 896 employment rights breaches experienced by 326 women who sought support through LAWRS’ Employment Rights Advice Service between 2015 and 2018. Among these, 25 women were working as domestic workers. The majority worked in two of the most expensive London boroughs, with 90% concentrated in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and 6% in Hammersmith and Fulham.
Of the 25 domestic workers supported by LAWRS during this period:
A further survey conducted by LAWRS with another 52 Latin American domestic workers evidenced that ‘normal’ working hours ranged from 12 to 16 hours per day, 57% experienced threats and verbal abuse and 14% had been sexually abused and/or harassed. Workers expressed being tired, experiencing physical pain and feeling fear of losing their jobs if they ‘ask for too much’.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the issues Latin American migrant domestic workers face. With a general lack of contract of employment and often informal conditions, many have not been able to receive support from the government’s Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. Those whose visas have a No Recourse to Public Funds condition attached, or who are undocumented, have also been left out of the additional support provided through Universal Credit.
This lack of social protections has meant domestic workers are highly reliant on their jobs for their survival, which has made it easier for some employers to impose conditions on their work during the pandemic.
During the pandemic, LAWRS has supported domestic workers who had been forced to work despite feeling ill or being worried about contracting the virus, whose employers had imposed pay cuts and asked workers to move into their residence during the lockdown, despite them having their own caring responsibilities. Workers were threatened with dismissal if they failed to comply. Living pay cheque to pay cheque and on the brink of destitution, many have had no choice but to accept these conditions.
Reaching workers inside private households can be complex. Current mechanisms designed by the Government to fight exploitation rely on workers and witnesses coming forward and reporting their employers. This doesn’t work well for migrant domestic workers for two main reasons.
First, research by LAWRS and FLEX/LEAG has shown that migrants often choose not to report crimes and exploitation if they feel their immigration status might lead them to be detained and deported. This does not only affect undocumented migrants, but also documented migrants who are unaware of their rights. Removing this barrier by putting an end to data-sharing between statutory services and the Home Office and providing safe reporting mechanisms for migrants to report exploitation is key to finding unscrupulous employers and bringing them to justice, preventing further or more severe exploitation.
In LAWRS’ experience, when migrants have sought help, learned about their options and decided to report their employers, statutory first responders have refused to refer them to the National Referral Mechanism if their experience diverges from clear-cut cases of exploitation. Instead, workers were treated as immigration offenders and/or not provided with support. Domestic workers can face a series of violations which appear less severe but, when analysed in their context, take on new meaning. Recognising that exploitation works along a continuum and that minor violations to labour rights can lead to more severe cases of exploitation is paramount in the search for progress in fighting exploitation and trafficking. Only once we do, can we put in place preventive measures that fit the problem and protect the most vulnerable workers.
The second reason why domestic workers may not report harm is distinct to this type of work: alongside more common elements that might prevent them from leaving an abusive employer, such as explicit threats or the retention of a passport, in domestic work we also see emotional coercion through guilt over the children they look after who they have become close with, for example. This emotional coercion tends to be overlooked by enforcement agencies.
The precarious working conditions and the lack of protection that many migrant workers face may have been heightened during the pandemic, but they are certainly not new phenomena. However, the challenges faced during these times have also brought forth a renewed sense of possibilities.
We have seen that support and resources can be made available. We have also understood that workers in vital sectors, like cleaning and care, are often those who are most in need of such protections.
As we celebrate International Domestic Workers’ Day and one more anniversary of the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 189 on the rights of domestic workers (‘C-189’), it is time for the UK government to protect domestic workers by ratifying this Convention and putting in place robust systems so that they don’t feel compelled to stay in exploitative conditions simply because they have no other option. These should include: an end to the No Recourse to Public Funds condition; adoption of safe reporting systems for migrants to report exploitation without fear; meaningful access to justice for the labour abuses committed against them; and improved training for statutory first responders to identify complex cases of exploitation.