Lords vote in favour of amendment to provide greater protection to overseas domestic workers
27 February 2015
Peers have voted in favour of an amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill, narrowly defeating the government
The amendment, brought by the crossbencher Lord Hylton, will allow overseas domestic workers the entitlement to change their employer, but not their work sector, while they are in the UK.
Dr Virginia Mantouvalou, Reader in Human Rights and Labour Law at UCL Laws, and Co-Director of the UCL Institute for Human Rights, has been conducting research into the rights of migrant domestic workers since 2005.
As part of her most recent research project, she examined the living and working conditions of workers in the UK under the Overseas Domestic Worker visa before and after their arrival in the UK. Interviews carried out with migrant domestic workers as part of the project revealed that after escaping abusive and exploitative conditions, they are left without documentation and often forced into an on-going cycle of exploitation.
The House of Lords vote comes after growing coverage of the plight of overseas domestic workers in the UK. The workers are brought into the country under the Overseas Domestic Worker visa, which ties them to their employers.
The visa regime, instigated in 2012, has drawn heavy criticism from a number of human and labour rights NGOs, as well as in the report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill, and has been seen to create a ‘loophole for abuse’ of migrant workers by their employers.
Speaking in the House of Lords, Baroness Hamwee referred to Dr Mantouvalou’s research and the work she has done with the UK NGO for migrant domestic workers, Kalayaan, which was presented at a panel discussion at the House of Lords in November 2014.
Baroness Hamwee, who voted for the amendment, said: “In hearing the experiences that have been related to us, I found it particularly distressing and concerning to learn that a number of workers were informed that, if they were to escape and start work for someone else, they would be working illegally or would be here illegally if they did not approach the authorities.
“Virginia Mantouvalou in the work that she did in conjunction with Kalayaan reported in her conclusion that the single fear that interviewees who participated unanimously voiced, now that they were undocumented, was a fear of the authorities, of imprisonment and of deportation.”
She added: “I do not say this lightly, but if I were not to support this amendment, I would feel complicit in slavery and servitude.”
In written evidence to the Parliamentary Public Bill Committee on the Modern Slavery Bill, published in October 2014, Dr Mantouvalou said: “Most interviewees work very long hours, between 12 and 18 hours a day, and have no day off. Most of them do not have their own room, but share a room with the children of the family.
“These workers are used to extremely low labour standards and the absence of labour rights in the country of origin (which is well-documented). As a result these workers do not question the continuation of this situation while in the UK.”
In previous oral and written evidence to Parliamentary committees on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill, Dr Mantouvalou has called for the 2012 visa regime for overseas domestic workers to be revised, arguing that the visa may be in breach of the prohibition of slavery, servitude and forced and compulsory labour under the European Convention on Human Rights.