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Provost's Awards Spotlight: Protecting Migrant Workers

3rd August 2017
public engagement
 | 
Public Engagement
One of the highlights of the UCL public engagement year!

One of the highlights in the UCL public engagement year is the Provost's Awards for Public Engagement. This takes place every year in the spring and recognises the fantastic work that UCL's staff and students do to open up research and teaching at UCL to the wider world by engaging with communities.

There were seven winners earlier in the year – which you can read about here but we had over fifty nominations from across UCL.  With such a wealth of projects, we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to shout about this work – which is all amazing.   So we decided to run this new news feature - the Provost Awards Spotlight.  This feature will run throughout the rest of the year in the run up to the next Awards, and will tell the stories of these individuals using their platform at UCL to mobilise, inspire and amplify.

© 2017 London charity Kalayaan

This month we’re featuring Virginia Mantouvalou, reader in Human Rights and Labour Law. She has been working with a London charity Kalayaan which works to provide practical advice and support to, as well as campaign with and for, the rights of migrant domestic workers in the UK.In 2015, the UK granted 17,352 visas for domestic workers, doing jobs such as cleaning, nannying and cooking. The vast proportion of these workers are women from countries such as the Philippines, India, Indonesia and a majority of them begin their employment outside the UK with families in the Gulf. It is when these families visit the UK bringing their staff with them, that UK employment law comes into effect. Though it’s not employment law as you know it.

We asked Virginia what her research involved:

“It is a study consisting of interviews with overseas domestic workers who are in the UK under a visa system that is linked to ‘modern slavery’. This is an extremely difficult group of workers to reach for numerous reasons (an invisible, sometimes undocumented, very fearful workforce, employed in private households).”

It seems hard to believe, but as a domestic worker from overseas, you could be expected to work any hours of the day, for far less than national minimum wage. In a report by Kalayaan in 2010, 48% of overseas domestic workers worked at least 16 hours a day, and 56% received a weekly salary of £50 or less.

© 2017 London charity Kalayaan

These workers are in a position that is uniquely vulnerable. They may have poor levels of English, and are unable to access the little support that does exist. In many cases they simply do not know their rights, but it’s not just a lack of information. The laws surrounding this group have only further compounded the situation.

Between 2012 and 2016, their visas were dependant on the single employer with whom they entered the country. If they left their job they would be actively prevented by UK laws from finding another, in what was an attempt by the government to reduce net migration. This forced many into undocumented work and the potential for further exploitation.

Despite this, many have taken their chances and fled. In 2014 Virginia begun the difficult process of interviewing some of these individuals,

“Meeting these workers, building a relationship of trust with them, trying to address their fear and anxiety, and, perhaps above all, hearing their stories, which were often devastating, was a really difficult experience for me. I was really glad that I could give them a voice through my publications.”

As one Kalayaan interviewee described:  

“I ran away. I left them sleeping… I packed my things and ran away without any documents, without any pocket money. I just had my stuff and myself that cold night.” (Bianca, migrant domestic worker)

And it’s easy to see why. Among workers who registered with Kalayaan between 2012 and 2015, 81% were given no time off during their employment. In some cases workers reported not being allowed to leave the house unsupervised, having to sleep on bathroom floors, and surviving on scraps of food left over from their employers’ meals.

In March 2015 after much publicity, the landmark Modern Slavery Act was passed to try to protect workers. This enabled overseas domestic workers the right to find a new employer, but only to work in the UK for a total of six months. For many having fled abusive workplaces, this was too little time to find anything else.

Shortly after the Modern Slavery Act was passed, the government called for an independent review of the visa system to investigate claims of modern slavery. The review recommended that the six-month limit on visas be lifted. This recommendation has still not be implemented, and a national minimum wage is still not required by law.

According to government advice that can be found online:

“If the applicant is not a member of the employer’s family but they live in their home they will not qualify for National Minimum Wage for work done for their household if they are having meals and accommodation provided free as if they were a family member.”

This phrasing is very much open to interpretation.

The research that Virginia continues to undertake with Kalayaan has become a unique resource, and has been debated in Parliament.

She says, ‘The exploitation of migrant domestic workers is a pressing social issue, giving rise to several human rights violations, which I have been exploring in my research and teaching. Kalayaan are doing really important work in the field. My continuous collaboration with them provides me with important insights both for my research and teaching.’

Virginia is a model of academic activism; not only acting as a volunteer advisor on labour law and human rights, her collaborative partnership with Kalayaan has helped shape new research questions that she is addressing in her scholarship. For this reason she was one of our winners this year.

She is Co-Director of the UCL Institute for Human Rights, a member of the Editorial Committee of the Modern Law Review, and was previously joint editor of Current Legal Problems. Before joining UCL, she taught at the University of Leicester and the London School of Economics. She has also been Dean’s Visiting Scholar at Georgetown University Law Centre in Washington DC.In 2016-17 she was a specialist advisor to the UK Joint Committee on Human Rights on ‘Business and Human Rights’. She teaches on human rights and labour law courses, and is the Director of Graduate Research Studies in the Faculty of Laws.