22 Mar 2017, 15 mins ago

The House of Lords voted by a small majority on Wednesday to protect overseas domestic workers in the UK from slavery, during the final session of the report stage of the Modern Slavery Bill (‘the Bill’).

The highly contested amendment 90 was moved by Lord Hylton, a crossbencher, and supported by Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Labour), the Lord Bishop of Carlisle and Baroness Hanham (Conservative). The amendment inserts a new clause in the legislation providing that ‘All overseas domestic workers in the United Kingdom, including those working for staff of diplomatic missions, shall be entitled to –

(a) change their employer (but not work sector) while in the United Kingdom;

(b) renew their domestic worker or diplomatic domestic worker visa, each such renewal being for a period not exceeding twelve months, as long as they remain in employment and are able to support themselves without recourse to public funds;

(c) a three month temporary visa permitting then to live in the United Kingdom for the purposes of seeking alternative employment as an overseas domestic worker where there is evidence that the worker has been a victim of modern slavery.’

Under the current visa regime, introduced in 2012, migrant domestic workers in a private household can enter the UK for up to 6 months with an employer they have worked with for at least a year previously. They cannot change their employer or extend their visa. Kalayaan, a London based charity which supports and campaigns on behalf of migrant domestic workers in the UK, has reported that this “tied visa” regime forces migrant workers to stay with abusive employers.

Victims are predominantly women, who come to the UK with valid entry clearance to work as cleaners, nannies and cooks for wealthy families. In many cases, they are forced to live in sub-human conditions. Human Rights Watch reported in April 2014 that migrant domestic workers in the UK are often made to work long hours with no breaks, suffer verbal, psychological and physical abuse and are paid low or no wages. They cite case studies where employers retain a victim’s passport and do not allow them to leave their homes.

Kalayaan reports that in the two years after the 2012 change in the visa category for migrant domestic workers there has been a marked increase in abuse and the ability of NGOs and other agencies is limited by implication. Workers who decide to leave an abusive employer and seek help are automatically in breach of the their visa requirements. The amendment is welcomed by frontline organisations and it is hoped this will empower migrant domestic workers to leave abusive situations with the option to change their employers within a three-month period without fear of breaching UK immigration law.

After over an hour of debate on Wednesday evening, peers supporting the amendment referred to emotive testimony provided by organisations like Kalayaan about the plight of overseas domestic workers in the UK. Baroness Hamwee, a Liberal Democrat peer, pointed out that at present there was no primary legislation in place which afforded sufficient protection to migrant domestic workers. She explained the necessity for legislation to fill the lacuna in the current law to enable migrant domestic workers to seek redress during their stay in the UK. A key issue identified in tackling the problem of persistent abuse of vulnerable domestic workers trapped with abusive employers is how to identify victims entering the UK and provide them with access to assistance so they can understand their rights.

Lord Bates, one of the sponsors of the Bill (with Theresa May) and Baroness Butler Sloss, former head of the Family Division, spoke for the government against the amendment. It was noted that the UK government is working with authorities in countries like the Philippines, where a majority of domestic workers in the UK are from, to monitor and protect workers coming to the UK. Lord Bates noted that subsidiary legislation, namely the Immigration Rules, could be amended at any stage to afford suitable protection to domestic workers coming to the UK to work. He also pointed out that the ‘old’ system in place before 2012 had been open to abuse by migrants to the UK, particularly as this visa category had been a route to settlement in the UK.

The Modern Slavery Bill is a response by the Conservative government to the recognition that slavery and trafficking is a persistent problem in the UK and was introduced in the House of Commons in June 2014. Amendment 90, only the second amendment to be brought to a vote during the report stage of the Bill, was adopted with 183 ‘content’ to 176 ‘not content’. The result was met with a discreet cheer amongst the peers, however, the Bill will now move to a third reading. It will then be decided whether the amendment for overseas domestic workers will in fact become law.