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Lesser Citizens Indian Migrant Domestic Workers in the UK

Updated: January 7, 2012 3:40 pm

Shanta (name changed), a domestic worker came to the U.K with her employer from Delhi, having worked with them for over a year. With an assurance of higher wages and limited responsibilities, Shanta decided to leave behind her four year old daughter and two year old son in the care of her mother-in-law, hopeful of sending home more money than she could earn as a domestic worker in India. On her arrival in London, Shanta confronted circumstances absolutely different from what she expected. Made to work 16 hours a day without a break and without any payment to either her or her family in India, Shanta was locked up in the house with her passport seized by the employers. Without any access to the world outside or to her family in India, she would stay up all night and stare through the windows into the dark imagining what it was like outside, blaming herself for having left her family and her children behind. It was only after four long years that she finally escaped.

Shanta’s escape was only the beginning of her struggle to seek justice and restore her rights as a migrant domestic worker in the UK. Brought to the UK by her employers on an Overseas Domestic Worker visa, Shanta was protected by the UK employment law and could hence take her abusive employers to court and most importantly, seek new employers. Shanta has now found new and better employers and is awaiting the employment tribunal decision. But for the safeguards of the Overseas Domestic Worker visa, Shanta’s story, like many others’, would have never come to light.

Like Shanta, there are many other migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in the UK, who enter the country on an Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visa, sponsored by their employer whom they accompany to work in their private household. This visa is typically granted for 6 months or 12 months depending upon the nature and purpose of the visit. Once in the UK, the MDWs are covered by the UK employment law and have the right to change their employer along with the right to legal action.

Kalayaan, a London based charity that provides advocacy and support services to such MDWs has nearly 30% of its clients registered as Indian citizens (Lalani, 2011). They come from a variety of regional, religious, linguistic and caste backgrounds but one commonality among most of them is the abuse and exploitation that they have faced from their employers. To provide a snapshot of their situation, 59 per cent of all the MDWs registered with Kalayaan between January 2008 and December 2010 were subject to psychological abuse from their employer, while close to 20 per cent experienced physical abuse. Approximately 5 per cent of workers also reported being sexually abused or harassed by their employer although the true figure is likely to be higher since many prefer not to report such experiences to Kalayaan (Lalani, 2011). These figures represent those who have been able to access Kalayaan’s support and services and it is most likely that those in even more adverse circumstances remain hidden. This is most relevant to the case of domestic workers in diplomatic households, who do not possess the right to change their employer and reveal startling evidence of trafficking for domestic servitude . Shielded by diplomatic immunity due to their status, they can get away with a heinous offence like trafficking for domestic servitude whereas a domestic worker who runs away from such an employer is faced with the threat of becoming undocumented.

The vulnerability of domestic workers stems from the private nature of their work within households which can neither be observed nor regulated. This vulnerability is exacerbated in a foreign country where they are dependent on their employers for work, accommodation and for maintaining their immigration status. Combined with the economic obligations of sending remittances home, the MDWs are unable to exercise their employment rights despite the safeguards offered. This is even worse in the case of those who accompany diplomats as domestic workers for they do not even have the right to change employers.

In the current socio-economic scenario in the UK, what has sparked off a concerted campaign by Kalayaan and other migrant rights groups and organizations are the proposed changes to the ODW visa. The UK government announced the launching of a 12 week public consultation (ending September 9, 2011) on reforms to the work routes leading to settlement. One of the proposals in the consultation is to consider abolishing the route for overseas domestic workers in private household, or consider restricting leave to a 6 month period as a visitor, or 12 months where accompanying a Tier 1 or Tier 2 migrant (i.e. ‘skilled’ migrants) with no right of extension or to change employer, among others. Kalayaan and other migrants’ rights organizations in the UK have been involved in a campaign to persuade the government from not doing so in light of the drastic impacts that it can have on the employment related rights (among others) of the MDWs in the UK.

This proposal is a step backward in the British government’s long efforts to prevent exploitation and abuses against domestic workers in the UK which has otherwise been hailed as ‘best practice’ in regard to legislation for migrant domestic workers around the world. MDWs, who came to the UK before 1998 did not have the right to change employer nor the right to apply for settlement after 5 years of stay. In other words, their immigration status was tied to their specific employer, which in most cases, led to cases of exploitation, maltreatment and abuse. MDWs who left their abusive employers would then end up as irregular or undocumented workers with no recourse to justice and rehabilitation. It is feared that any action to change the current arrangement would mean a return to the pre-concession rules which were described as characteristic of slavery, forced labour and human rights violations, creating an underclass of thousands of workers who will have no protection under employment law and allow exploitation with impunity.

Having said that, the role of the Government of India in extending its support to several Indian migrant domestic workers, who have been campaigning against the potentially precarious working conditions and the loss of their employment rights, has been dismal. India takes great pride in its ‘skilled’ immigrant workforce around the world whether it is in the field of IT, finance or the intelligentsia. On the contrary, the plight of its ‘low skilled’ immigrant workforce whether it be immigrant construction workers in the Gulf countries or the MDWs in the UK, has been unable to receive due attention and desired action. In the face of extraordinary delays in retrieving passports of the MDWs fleeing abusive employers, lack of cooperation in matters of documentation and identification, perhaps this should not come as a surprise. Caught at the margins of the labour market and of the immigration system, the Indian MDWs can only hope that the Government of India can extend its formal support to their campaign against the proposed changes. Despite attempts to convey the urgency of the situation and the need for formal support, the hope remains unfulfilled.

It is therefore extremely important at the current moment that the Government of India issue a statement in the form of a response to the proposed changes to the ODW visa, which provides support and strength to the ongoing campaign by the MDWs. For example, in its response to the consultations regarding the proposed changes, the Philippines Embassy in the UK stated a clear opinion in favour of retaining the current ODW visa. Mindful of its citizens’ rights and welfare in the UK, such a statement from the concerned national government is crucial to the demands of the MDWs themselves.

In the long run, there are some necessary actions that the GoI ought to take in order to ensure that the Indian MDWs in the UK and elsewhere are safeguarded. Some suggestions and recommendations are as below:

  1. Firstly and most importantly, the Government of India must ensure that the UK visa issuing centers in India interview the person travelling on the domestic worker visa privately and separately from the sponsoring employer. According to Lalani (2011), out of the 192 Indian migrant domestic workers registered with Kalayaan during 2009-10, only 92 were interviewed. Out of these 92, only 31 were interviewed in the absence of their employers.
  2. Following from the previous recommendation, it is equally important to ascertain that at the time of issuing the visa, the relevant authorities must also provide the domestic workers with information on their rights and entitlements in the UK and other destinations. Out of the 192 Indian MDWs registered with Kalayaan during 2009-10, only 4 MDWs received information about their rights in the UK. Also, not only is it important to provide this information, it is also important that it be provided in all the major Indian languages
  3. In a typical case, once a domestic worker leaves an abusive employer without his/her passport if it is withheld by the employer, the passport is sent to the Indian High Commission. In many cases, retrieving the passport becomes a complex and prolonged exercise The Indian High Commission in the UK must ensure that MDWs whose passports are first confiscated and then sent to the High Commission by the employer are provided with their passports immediately. A delay in obtaining their passports has adverse consequences for their immigration status and visa extension applications which makes them more vulnerable.
  4. The previous recommendation is even more relevant in those cases where the passport is ‘lost’ between the employer and the High Commission. In such circumstances, the High Commission should either provide the domestic worker with new passports speedily or provide them with substitute travel and identification documents.
  5. A simple and significant action that the Government of India can initiate is to establish a toll free hotline for emergency assistance to the MDWs abroad. A concrete example of such an initiative is a hotline called SOS SMS established by the Centre for Migrant Advocacy in the Philippines and its partners in Saudi Arabia. The SMS line allows overseas foreign workers from the Philippines to send a text message of distress to the Philippines, where it is then forwarded to a variety of migrant advocacy and government organizations. Such a hotline can be linked to the various Indian missions abroad so that vulnerable migrant workers, whatever their immigration status and occupation and whichever their country of work and residence, can report a case of abuse or exploitation immediately.
  6. The Government of India must also own responsibility in cases of exploitation and abuse by Indian diplomats abroad. As representatives of the GoI abroad, diplomats misusing their diplomatic immunity should be penalized and prosecuted for violation of the rights of their employees. For instance, there should be an established mechanism within the Ministry of External Affairs, an Ombusman, which can monitor and probe cases of such transgressions within diplomatic missions abroad.
  7. Even as Government of India pursues the opening of overseas labour markets for its workforce under the GATS Mode 4, it has been selective in favour of the high skilled migrants. The Doha round 2011, remained inconclusive about this arrangement as a result of which the international labour migration flows are bound to be governed by bilateral agreements between source and destination countries. It is therefore very important that the GoI should aim to ‘increase the transparency and accountability of monitoring systems set up jointly with host countries’ (Wolff, 2010). In the context of the MDWs from India in the U.K., the GoI must ensure that the problems of this group of workers are addressed through a constructive dialogue and communication with the host country i.e. the UK.

These are but a few steps that the GoI can take in order to prevent and monitor the violation of the employment and labour rights of its citizens who enter the UK as MDWs. It is important to send across this message to both the employers and the DWs that the Indian government is concerned about its citizens, irrespective of their employment and income and is willing to address their issues.

As a form of labour and as an occupation, ‘domestic work’ has often been neglected in the cross fire between the feminist critique of women’s unpaid work and the Marxist analysis of cheap and surplus labour. The categories of the ‘housewife’ and the ‘working woman’ in the neo-liberal private household have eclipsed the ‘extra’ or the ‘other’ provider of such labor that is the domestic worker. It is therefore extremely important to push this division of reproductive labour to the centre of analysis, even more so in the context of the ‘international division of reproductive labour’ (Parrenas, 2000). Ehrenreich and Hochschild (2003) draw attention to the ‘female underside of globalization’ as it manifests itself in the ‘global care chains’ (Hochschild, 2000) – women from the poor countries in the South migrate to do ‘women’s work’ in the North, and leave behind their own children under the care of grandmothers, sisters, and sister-in-law. The proletarianization of the female labour force i.e. the entry of women into paid labour in both the rich and the poor countries, though in varying degrees, has led to a deficit on ‘women’s work’ i.e. reproductive labour. It is the Third World migrant women who fill this deficit by assuming the cast off domestic roles of the middle and high income women in the First world.

In the global economy, these ‘survival circuits’ (Sassen, 2001) are built on the backs of women who become the source of foreign earnings for the sending countries and contribute to building new economies and expanding existing ones. Domestic workers – nannies, maids, and drivers – fulfill this need for low waged work in the global cities. Operating in a segmented labour market which is as racialized as it is gendered, these immigrant women are ‘doing the dirty work’ (Anderson, 2000).

It is both a shame and a tragedy that in the year in which the International Labour Organization adopted its first ever convention – ‘Decent work for Domestic Workers’ , MDWs in the UK are being pushed back in time without any support whatsoever from both the sending and the receiving countries. It was almost thirty years ago that the migrant domestic workers in the UK organized and campaigned for a rightful legal and economic status as ‘workers’, a right which is now under threat. It is a tragedy that both, their country of destination and their country of origin, are negligent towards their situation, at one hand being non-citizens and on the other, the lesser.

(Courtesy: Manushi)

By Bhoomika Joshi

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