“I got no days off or breaks during the day,” says Mimi, 44, describing her life as a domestic worker with a rich family in London. “Even drinking water in the middle of the day was not allowed,” she adds, explaining that she used to hide a bottle of water in her bucket of cleaning materials so she could drink while cleaning the toilet and no one would see.
Mimi, a Filipino national, was brought to the UK as a domestic worker by her Emirati employer six years ago. She says she was not properly fed and that her wages were frequently deducted from her salary, meaning some months she wasn’t paid at all.
The mother-of-three is one of thousands of women who have come to the UK from outside the EU to accompany an existing employer in their private household on an overseas domestic worker visa, usually so they can send their earnings to families in their home countries.
In 2012, the government introduced restrictions which removed the rights of holders of the visa to change employer and renew their stay in the UK. Instead, workers entered on a six-month, non-renewable visa, on which they could not change employer, no matter the reason.
Following a damning review of the visa scheme in 2016, the Home Office made changes to it which allowed domestic workers to switch employers within the six-month term of their visa, and to apply for further leave to remain as a domestic worker for up to two years if they were recognised as having been enslaved under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s framework for identifying modern slavery victims.
However, charities supporting domestic workers say the changes have made no difference to the levels of abuse and domestic servitude reported to them by women who have successfully escaped their workplaces, and that people are often left fearful of deportation after fleeing.
Kalayaan, the UK’s leading organisation for domestic workers, along with the Voice of Domestic Workers, are calling on ministers to urgently reinstate the original overseas domestic worker visa. They argue that, due to the hidden and unregulated nature of domestic work, combined by the workers’ status as a migrant and dependence on their employer for work, immigration status and accommodation, it is placing domestic workers at heightened risk of abuse and exploitation.
Jess Phillips, a Labour MP who is backing the campaign, said: "It is harrowing to hear the experiences of exploitation and abuse each and every time I meet with overseas domestic workers. Without question these women need agency, rights and support that the current system does not provide."
A survey of 539 domestic workers in the UK conducted by the Voice of Domestic Workers in 2018 showed that more than three quarters had experienced physical, verbal or sexual abuse, half reported that they were not given enough food at work and six in 10 were not given their own private room in employers’ houses.
It also found that the majority were paid below the national minimum wage – receiving between £300 and £400 while working 60-80 hour per week.
Several months after arriving in London, Mimi found the courage to flee from the abuse. “Although I was scared, I managed to do it,” she says. But life wasn’t easy after her escape, as she found herself undocumented and homeless, and began to live in fear of being caught and deported.
After two years of homelessness, sleeping on the sofas of friends, Mimi was introduced to the charity Voice of Domestic Workers, which informed her that she could be referred to the NRM.
She waited for four years to receive a decision, during which she was not allowed to work and had to rely on the £35 a week from the Home Office – most of which she sent home to her children in the Philippines. She finally received a positive decision at the end of 2019, and was granted a two-year domestic worker visa. Although she found a job, this was terminated during the pandemic, and she is now worried about what will happen when her visa runs out at the end of 2021.
“Even though the Home Office granted me with this, I am somehow still upset. I feel that there is still no justice,” Mimi says. “My abusive employers are free and me, as a worker, I really don’t want to be treated as a trafficked victim who needs to be supported by the government. I want is to be recognised as a worker – as independent worker – who is able to provide for my family.”
Campaigners say that in order to prevent people like Mimi from being left in this state of limbo after escaping from abusive situations – and to ensure that domestic workers aren’t discouraged from fleeing exploitation – ministers must revert the overseas domestic worker visa back to its pre-2012 requirements.
Kate Roberts, UK and Europe manager at Anti-Slavery International, said: “People who hold the overseas domestic worker visa have been repeatedly shown that restrictive immigration measures facilitate the exploitation of migrant workers.
“Domestic workers migrate because they need to work. People are making really difficult choices to work and support their families. And if they don’t have this right it work, it’s something exploiters can abuse to create this vulnerability. People need to be able to exercise their rights.”
Ms Roberts pointed out that under the previous visa, domestic workers were able to exercise rights and leave and get another job without jeopardising their livelihood and their immigration status.
“None of this is rocket science. It’s frustrating that it’s something domestic workers have been saying for so long, and they’re presenting a solution, but are not being listened to,” she added.
“We’re now five years after the modern slavery act and eight years after this disastrous change to the domestic worker visa made in 2012. We need action.”
In another case, Lyn, 27, came to the UK in August 2018 as a domestic worker with her Saudi employer and her three children. She describes working 13 hours a day with no days off. Unaware of her rights, she thought these hours and her small salary were normal in Britain.
But one day, the police approached her at the children’s school and requested she accompany them to the station to answer some questions. Someone had told them she was being abused.
“I told them I couldn’t stay long because my employer would expect me, but I told them everything about the treatment by my employer. They told me about the NRM which I didn’t understand but I did ask myself: ‘Am I slave?’” she says.
She was referred to the NRM and after five days, the police informed Lyn that she had received a “positive reasonable grounds” decision on her case – meaning there were grounds to believe she was a modern slavery victim but that it required further investigation. She was allowed to stay in the UK while her case was ongoing, with financial support from the Home Office.
Lyn recently received a negative NRM decision. “I am scared if I overstay I will be arrested and deported back home unprepared financially and unstable emotionally and mentally,” she says. “I tried to be lawful but there is a fire wherever I step. Why am I at risk of prosecution, not the employer who abused me?”
Marissa Begonia, a domestic worker and founding member of the Voice of Domestic Workers, said: “Hearing these stories again and again, I can’t help but feel angry. I am angry at how the system facilitates abuse and continues to systematically torture migrant domestic workers under the NRM, and at the end of the process, it’s ‘go home, you’re not a victim’.
“The government is so proud of their Modern Slavery Act and says it’s a world leader in ending modern slavery and trafficking. Yet forcing migrant domestic workers to apply under the NRM is not a solution but another form of exploitation. The pre-2012 visa protected and recognised us as workers because that’s what we are.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to protecting migrant domestic workers from abuse and exploitation, and victims of modern slavery are given tailored support to help rebuild their lives through the NRM.
“We have already made a number of changes to the overseas domestic worker immigration route to better protect workers. However, we are not complacent and we will continue efforts to ensure that no worker suffers abuse at the hands of their employer.”