The Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ) has called on the government not to remove the right of migrant domestic workers employed in a private household to find a new employer, if they are experiencing abusive treatment.
The provision, that allows for a visa, enabling migrant domestic workers to change employer, was introduced in 1998 after a long campaign by churches, trade unions, refugee and migrant organisations. The government are looking at the issue as part of its drive to cut migration to the UK. The visa came about following reports of abuse and exploitation over the previous 20 years.
"The ability to change employer is seen as an important way of providing workers with a degree of protection. There are no reasonable grounds for removing the existing provision, which is there to provide a basic level of security," said Rosie Bairwal, CARJ co-ordinator.
"Britain has often led the way in promoting legislation on human rights and equality. However, this proposal if implemented will remove a basic level of protection from those who have abusive employers and appears to be concerned with reduced immigration numbers rather than the human rights of a highly vulnerable group of people."
The importance of the visa was recognised by the Home Affairs Select Committee in its inquiry into human trafficking ‘"To retain the migrant domestic worker visa and the protection it offers to workers is the single most important issue in preventing the forced labour and trafficking of such workers," said the select committee.
The Government plans to remove or to dramatically change the visa, and in doing so removing all rights of migrant domestic workers in the UK. The other proposed option is for workers to enter on a six or 12 month, non renewable visa.
"On this visa they would not be permitted to change employer, no matter what their treatment, nor would they be protected by UK labour laws. It is not clear what would they would be expected to do once their visa expired as many have been recruited from a third country, to which they would have no right of return without their employer," said Kate Roberts, community advocate at traffiicking charity Kalayaan.
"To return to their country would not be out of the question for many domestic workers who have debts incurred while securing their overseas job. It seems likely that workers would not only be severely exploited on this visa but that employers would encourage (or force) them to stay on in the UK once their visa had expired," she said.
Campaigners are concerned that the proposals will leave domestic workers open to abuse, will increase trafficking for domestic servitude and will make no significant difference to net migration. Government figures show that in 2009, migrant domestic workers made up a mere 0.5 per cent of those granted settlement in the UK.
"We are concerned that the proposals will leave domestic workers open to abuse, will increase trafficking for domestic servitude and will make no significant difference to net migration," said Ms Roberts.
CARJ have joined with Kalayaan in calling for the right to move employer to be extended to cover migrant domestic workers employed in diplomatic households.
"In addition the right to apply for a domestic worker visa, to extend the visa and to apply to permanently settle in the country after a specified time should also be retained, as the numbers involved are small, and under an immigration system that values only the highly-skilled, it is one of the few pathways for those who are less-skilled," said Ms Bairwal.
In the UK domestic workers are covered by national employment law in theory, however enforcement is poor and employment protections have not been translated into practice. Domestic workers are exploited behind closed doors in private and diplomatic households and fall outside the normal regulatory and inspection framework applicable to other places of work, so they effectively lack legal protection. It is also difficult for domestic workers to organise and join trade unions because of their place of work. A change is needed to enable domestic workers to be regulated and protected in comparable ways to other workers.
A new ILO Convention will provide an international framework to protect the rights of domestic workers worldwide and ensure they are treated equally and fairly. "The UK and other nations should ratify and implement the Convention so their national laws provide this much needed protection in practice," said Ms Bairwal.
For more information on CARJ see: www.carj.org.uk/