It might be hard to believe that a domestic worker – or anyone – is currently forced to sleep on a bathroom floor or is locked up in a house. Yet such experiences are very real for those who come to the UK on an overseas domestic worker visa. The current system – which provides a six-month, non-renewable right to stay – does not allow such workers to change employers. Those who run away due to appalling experiences are thus unable to find a new job and become undocumented. Canging the visa system is the only way forward, if the UK is to treat everyone as human.
Since 2012 migrant domestic workers arrive in the UK under very restrictive visa conditions. The Overseas Domestic Worker visa does not permit them to change employer and ties them to the employer with whom they arrived for a non-renewable period of six months. Domestic workers, particularly when they live in the employers’ household, are a vulnerable group of workers. They are also often excluded from labour protective laws. The UK visa has been heavily criticised by many for creating further vulnerability, and has even been linked to slavery. Between 15,000 and 16,000 such visas are issued each year, according to the Home Office, which does not provide any further information on arrivals but produces data on the nationality of the employers. About 80 per cent come from a very small number of countries in the Middle East.
Last year I conducted an empirical study, a series of interviews with 24 migrant domestic workers who arrived in the UK on this visa. My aim was to find out how this vulnerable and difficult (for researchers) to reach group of workers experience the visa in practice. The workers interviewed recounted shocking stories of abuse and exploitation, fear and isolation.
I approached the interviewees through Kalayaan, the main non-governmental organisation specializing in the labour rights of domestic workers. I was introduced to them as a trustee of Kalayaan, and conducted the interviews in the offices of the organisation with the help of interpreters. The purpose of my study was not to find a representative sample or to produce quantitative analysis of the numbers of workers under the visa, which would be impossible in the case of this group.