It has long been recognised that migrant domestic workers are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. The nature of abuse may span from minor breaches of employment and health and safety law, to physical and sexual violence, slavery, forced labour and trafficking.
During the passage of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, parliamentary debates highlighted that changes made to the Overseas Domestic Worker visa system in April 2012 had increased domestic workers vulnerability to trafficking and slavery. The changes removed the entitlement to change employer whilst in the UK and introduced further restrictions on how long domestic workers could stay.
Critics argued that the right to change employer whilst in the UK was an important protection against abusive employers but the Coalition government argued that the changes were necessary to bring the visas in line with its strategy of prioritising entry for the “brightest and best” skilled migrants and restricting eligibility for permanent residence.
Nevertheless, James Ewins (now QC) was commissioned by the Government to review the conditions of the Overseas Domestic Worker visa and consider whether they were appropriate, given the Government’s commitment to tackling modern slavery.
The Ewins report called for all overseas domestic workers to be given the right to change employers; for those who were abused in any way, this right would give them a “real and practical way out of that abuse without the possibility of a subsequent precarious immigration status and threat to livelihood.”
The second recommendation would allow domestic workers in private households to apply for further leave to remain in the UK for up to 30 months.
Overall, the report found that the domestic worker visa conditions were incompatible with the protection of domestic workers’ fundamental rights whilst in the UK.
The Government did not implement Mr Ewins recommendations, despite being under considerable pressure to do so by the House of Lords and some MP’s in the House of Commons. It successfully resisted an attempt to implement those recommendations through an amendment to the Immigration Bill 2015-16.
Instead, in April 2016, the Government changed the immigration rules in order to allow domestic workers in private households to change employer (for any reason) during the validity period of their six month visa (note only 6 months). In this situation, the domestic worker does not need to show that they have been the victim of abuse.
Domestic workers, whether in a private or diplomatic household, who are victims of trafficking or slavery are now allowed to apply for limited leave to remain for up to two years, with permission to work as a domestic worker. During this period, these workers cannot have recourse to public funds (state benefits or housing). James Ewins had recommended that all domestic workers should have the right to extend their visa regardless of how they were treated.
Campaigners continue to argue that urgent changes are needed to the UK visa system to protect migrant workers from being used as domestic slaves. Given the fact that an estimated 17,000 domestic worker migrants are brought to the UK every year, we would argue that the Home Office should do more to protect victims of domestic slavery. It therefore remains to be seen what 2017 has in store for those who critics argue are trapped in a system that tolerates abuse, slavery and trafficking.