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UK falls short – leaving domestic workers at risk of ‘modern slavery’

8 November 2012

Virginia Mantouvalou


Legislative loopholes mean many domestic workers are employed in conditions that meet the emerging definition of ‘modern slavery’, according to Dr Virginia Mantouvalou, UCL Law lecturer and Co-Director of the UCL Institute for Human Rights.

Domestic workers, defined as those employed by private households for tasks such as cleaning and child-care, are given inadequate legal protection regarding the minimum wage, health and safety at work and maximum hours worked.

Recent changes to immigration laws have further compounded these issues. Migrant workers who accompany their employers need a special visa that ties them to the employer. They can no longer change employers, regardless of their treatment, without risking deportation – a move Dr Mantouvalou described as “a dispiriting step in the wrong direction”.

These factors, in conjunction with economic changes and the informality of the employment relation in question, have contributed to these workers' precariousness. As a result, high numbers of domestic workers are suffering abuse at the hands of their employer.

The claim is borne out by the alarming results of recent reports of international and national bodies such as the International Labour Organisation, the European Union, Human Rights Watch and Anti-Slavery International. Findings from the survey of the London-based NGO Kalayaan, for instance, revealed that from those that registered with it in 2010, 60 per cent were not allowed out unaccompanied, 65 per cent had their passport withheld,54 per cent suffered psychological abuse, 18 per cent suffered physical abuse or assault and 3 per cent were sexually abused.

Dr Mantouvalou said: “ Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights prohibits slavery and servitude. The European Court of Human Rights has shown that it is willing to find a breach of the provision in cases of severe denials of freedom, obligation to provide services and little or no ability to change the situation.

“In the case of domestic workers, we are in the process of acknowledging that in a disturbing number of cases, employment conditions meet the definition of modern slavery. Workers are excluded from certain legal rights, and remain vulnerable to abuse, because they have very few alternatives other than severe poverty or homelessness. The statistics show that workers are being routinely abused … put simply, their life can become an object of their employer’s control.

“There are positive signs of political good-will on this subject, not least from US President Obama's talk in September 2012. However, the sad fact remains that the UK is falling behind international standards. It needs only to look to certain other European countries to find solutions to the many obstacles they claim are preventing them doing more to protect workers who are amongst the most vulnerable in our society.”

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