MPs reject bid to aid migrant workers

27 March 2015

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THE rejection by MPs of amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill, which would have loosened the restrictions on migrant domestic workers, has been criticised by charities and campaigners.

MPs voted down the amendments, added to the Bill by the House of Lords with the support of the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, last week. Currently, domestic workers who are brought to the UK by their employer enter the country on a tied visa, which means that they cannot leave their job without losing their right to work in the UK.

The amendments, added to the Bill by peers in February, would have allowed such workers to take another job and then re-apply for a visa. The amendments were opposed by the Government, although the Minister for Modern Slavery, Karen Bradley, said that they agreed in principle with the Lords on the issue.

The UK charity Kalayaan, which works with domestic workers who have suffered abuse, said that the Government's position made no sense and was "morally abhorrent". A statement from Kalayaan said: "The Modern Slavery Bill is proposing to keep workers we know to be vulnerable to extreme abuses including trafficking and slavery tied to their employers on a visa which has been found to facilitate their abuse."

The charity is now backing more amendments, proposed by crossbench peer Lord Hylton, which would restore the original amendments and free migrant domestic workers to leave their employers and find work elsewhere.

Academics from University College London recently investigated tied visas, which were introduced in 2012, by interviewing hundreds of domestic workers. They found that eight per cent of those who arrived before the law changed reported physical abuse by their employers, but that this increased to 16 per cent after 2012.

Three in four workers on tied visas said that they were not allowed to leave the house they worked in, compared with half of those on the old visas. Sixty per cent on tied visas said that they were paid less than £50 a week, compared with 36 per cent of the pre-2012 workers. One of those interviewed told researchers that she had even tried to kill herself because of the harassment she had suffered.

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Christian Aid has also long campaigned for the Government to do more to protect domestic workers from exploitation. It wants the UK to ratify the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Convention 189 on domestic workers, which was agreed in 2011 but has only been ratified in 17 nations.

One of their international partners, Israeli campaigners Kav LaOved, also fights to secure more rights for migrant domestic workers. A co-ordinator for Kav LaOved, Noa Shauer, said on Friday of last week that workers on similar tied visas in Israel were also being abused.

Often domestic workers have paid up to £8000 to a private firm to allow them to come to Israel, but their visas do not allow them to change employer more than once or leave a defined geographical area.

"One worker who came to us had been looking after a paralysed boy for eight years with less than 24 hours off each week," Ms Shauer said. "It's not rare that they cannot leave the house for two years, or more.

"One showed us a [contract] where she was expected to work from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. When the worker asked for time to wash her clothes or call her family, her employer said, 'You can do it in your time off.'"

The ILO Convention is necessary because Israeli law does not consider migrant domestic workers to be covered by legislation that guarantees ordinary workers rights to time off and overtime pay.

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