It might sound innocent enough. A family brings someone from abroad to work in their home, under the domestic worker visa programme. For the sake of ‘convenience’, the employer hangs on to the worker’s passport. But a new report from Kalayaan, a group supporting the rights of migrant domestic workers, shows how the withholding of passports by employers is the lynchpin of a deeply exploitative relationship.
Kalayaan estimates that around half of all domestic migrant workers legally entering the UK have their passport taken by employers. The result is that workers often feel unable to leave their employer, for fear of being left without documents to prove their immigration status. Abusive employers exploit this fear to enforce harsh working conditions, long hours and other forms of mistreatment. Thus, holding on to a passport becomes a form of coercion, creating the kind of ‘reliable’ workers which is the main attraction, for many employers, of bringing workers from abroad.
Should the worker, nevertheless, decide to leave their employment, they are often left in an immigration limbo, subject to the risk of deportation or detention and unable to access public services, such as healthcare. At the very least, they are forced to embark on the time-consuming, expensive and difficult task of obtaining new documents from embassies or the Home Office.
At the launch last week of Kalayaan’s report on withholding of passports, a number of individual cases which the organisation had dealt with were highlighted:
- ‘K’, a Nepalese woman, worked for her employer for two years, with her passport withheld. Then, after asking for a day off, she was thrown out of the house. She was told that her passport had been passed on to a solicitor, leaving her unable to ascertain what visa she had. It took three months before ‘K’, with support from Kalayaan, was able to retrieve her passport from the solicitor. She then found that the page with the visa had been removed. Some months later, when she was eventually able to confirm the nature of her visa, she found that it had already expired and she was at risk of deportation.
- ‘G’ was brought over from Gambia to work in the home of a British family in 2001. She was initially told that she would only have to look after the children but her work turned out to be far more arduous. ‘G’ was made to work from 6.30am till midnight or later, earning £300 per month. She had only half a day off per week. When she was not working, she shared a room with one of the boys. Her passport was kept from her by the family. Eventually, the family stopped paying her and threatened her with being sent home if she complained. After five months of no pay, she managed to grab back her passport and run away.
- ‘H’ came to London from Nigeria to work as a domestic worker in 1991. After passing through immigration with her employer, she never saw her passport again. She soon found that she had been misled about the nature of the work. Her working day began at 6am and often went on past midnight. She was told that if she went out of the house she would be deported. On one occasion, she was hit by her employer. She was paid £5 per month. One day she was told to leave the house but she was not given her passport. It was only after the involvement of Kalayaan, her embassy and the police that she was able to regain her passport.
“Withholding of a passport denies a person’s basic human existence. Migrant domestic workers must have independent recognised status. Without this, their position is equivalent to modern day slavery.” – Bill Morris, Transport and General Workers’ Union
Around 14,000 domestic workers enter the UK each year. Out of those surveyed by Kalayaan in August 2002, 98 per cent were paid under £200 per month, 83 per cent were locked in or not allowed to leave the house, 69 per cent were physically abused and 9 per cent were sexually abused. For Kalayaan, these grim statistics reflect the fact that the removal of passports turns domestic work into a form of forced labour.
Kalayaan is calling for official recognition of the problem – from employers, police, the Home Office, embassies, trade unions and migrant groups. One issue which the organisation wants addressed is the legal issue of ownership. Currently, passports are the property of the government that issued them, not the bearer. As a result, the police are not obliged to intervene if an employer takes a passport from a worker. Kalayaan is calling for legislation to render passport retention a specific criminal offence.
The other legal issue is that workers who are considered to be ‘part of the family’ are exempt from minimum wage legislation, working time directives, race relations legislation and so on – in other words, all the legislation that defines a modern work relationship. Until now, migrant domestic workers have been considered ‘part of the family’ in legal terms, which means that they can be paid next to nothing, made to work all hours in the day or racially abused. However, at a recent industrial tribunal hearing, a migrant domestic worker won £40,000 for non-payment of the minimum wage, and a legal definition of working as ‘part of the family’ was provided.
Five years ago, Kalayaan successfully campaigned for a change in the law to allow domestic migrant workers to leave their employer. Before 1998, their legal status in the UK was entirely dependent on the consent of their employers and so those who left – often fleeing from abuse – were classed as overstayers and could be deported. In 1998, the government also regularised the immigration status of a number of migrants who had been put in this position under the earlier legislation. But, the success of the 1998 reform has been undermined through the practice of employers holding on to passports.
Whereas in the past, campaigners focused on the immigration status of migrant workers, now attention is being extended to workers’ rights, said a spokeswoman for Kalayaan.