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Does Slavery Still Exist in the UK? | Immigration Matters

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With the UK Government planning to apologise to Africa for its contribution to the 19th century slavery trade, Immigration Matters asks whether workers closer to home are being treated like slaves in 2006.

‘Slavery in the UK’, an article published in the Independent (27th December 2006) tells the story of Somalatha, a Sri Lankan domestic worker who escaped from her employer after suffering exploitation. Many in the Filipino community will be all too familiar with this story, which could be applied to hundreds of domestic workers.

Somalatha arrived in Britain with a family she had been working for in Jordan. She was employed as a maid and was forced to work 16 to 18 hours a day, for which she was paid £200 a month. In the first two years, she was not given one day off.

She was not allowed to eat with the family and had to wait for leftovers. If there were none, she was advised to eat onions and potatoes. If any food was missing, she was automatically blamed for it, or even punished.

Somalatha did not have her own room and had to sleep on a sofa-bed in the sitting room, where she was disturbed by anyone who came in late. Friday nights were especially difficult since the teenage children would come home late at night and bring their friends, which would prevent her from sleeping.

Her employer deliberately allowed Somalatha’s visa to expire, so she could not run away. She kept asking for a letter from her employer so she could apply to renew her visa but this was refused.

Under current legislation, domestic workers who are being badly treated have a legal way out and can change employer whilst in the UK. But the Government is about to close this escape route. The new Points Based System announced earlier this year proposes changes to the law which will divide UK migrants into five tiers according to their perceived skills and the economic benefit they will bring to the country.

This new system, which favours the highly skilled, makes no mention of domestic workers, a point raised at a special meeting at the Philippine Embassy between the Home Office and community representatives. I was present at the meeting where three Home Office officials were directly questioned on the fate of the thousands of Filipino domestic workers currently working in the UK.

Unfortunately, they would only say that “nothing was set in stone” and that the final details of the points system had not been worked out.

The Independent seems to have got further with their enquiries and reports that “immigration officials have told Anti-Slavery International – one of the three charities being supported by this year’s Independent Christmas Appeal – that domestic workers like Somalatha will henceforth be tied to the employers with whom they entered the UK, with no right to change employers – no matter how abusive their treatment.”

This is not the only form of slavery on the rise in Britain. A law against trafficking for forced labour was brought in after 23 Chinese workers lost their lives picking cockles in Morecambe Bay in 2004. But the trade in human exploitation continues.

Like hundreds of Filipino runaway domestic workers, Somalatha was rescued by one of Anti-Slavery International’s partner organisations, Kalayaan, which runs a community centre in London offering advice on immigration and employment law. A survey of Kalayaan’s clients showed that 75 per cent reported psychological abuse and more than a third were physically abused.

Until now the law has given hope to women like Somalatha, allowing them to change employers so long as they are in full-time employment as a domestic worker in a private household. But, under Labour’s immigration crackdown, this is about to change and in future domestic workers will lose the right to change their employer. Campaigners rightly fear that, without the protection of the law, employers will keep workers on illegally, making them easier to exploit.

The government is giving employers a gun to put to their head – i.e. keep your mouth shut or you’ll be on the next plane home!

Cynthia Barker a leading Immigration Adviser with Bison UK said:

“We have helped hundreds of domestic workers often running away in fear of their lives leaving everything behind. If the government removes this concession to switch employers, workers will lose their right to basic protection under the law. I have always thought that Britain was a fair and tolerant country. I can’t believe that a Labour government would do this to some of the most vulnerable workers in our society.

“They will effectively become slaves trapped and exploited by their employer, but knowing that if they protest or run away they will be removed from the country. The government are giving employers a gun to put to their head – i.e. keep your mouth shut or you’ll be on the next plane home! This cannot be right, what happened to British justice?”

Kalayaan and Anti-Slavery International have begun a campaign to keep the law as it is – allowing such workers the right to leave their original employers while maintaining their immigration status as a domestic worker.

Even the right to settlement is under threat. At present workers can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain after five years (changed from four years last April). But under new proposals lower skilled workers may not even be allowed to settle in the UK at all.

A new language and British test will be introduced in April for anyone applying for settlement in the UK. The test could prove difficult for many domestic workers who have been kept in virtual isolation since their arrival in the UK.

Labour’s About Turn

It does seem remarkable that the very party which pledged to end the exploitation of migrant domestic workers whilst in opposition is now pulling the rug from under their feet.

In fact it was one of Tony Blair’s early moves when coming to power in 1998 to pass a law allowing such workers to change their employer, renew their visa to stay and, after four years (now five years), apply to settle in the UK.

How different things are in 2006 when, under its consultation exercise ‘Making Migration Work for Britain’, Labour proposes to remove the rights of migrant domestic workers and refuses to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings.

Slavery, it would appear, does exist in Britain, in the 21st century.

Thank you for reading our Newsletter and for all your kind comments throughout the year. All the team at Immigration Matters would like to extend our seasons greeting to you and wish you a happy and prosperous New Year.

If you should have any questions or views or need help please email Charles Kelly

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