Domestic migrant workers in the UK can be trapped in slave-like conditions meaning they are treated worse than in their own countries, a landmark human rights report has claimed.
Human Rights Watch said the UK's immigration restrictions made it harder for domestic workers to escape cruelty if they were trapped by abusive employers. Around 15,000 arrive every year, most from Africa or Asia.
“It’s scandalous that in modern Britain migrant domestic workers are subject to such appalling abuses,” said Izza Leghtas, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“But instead of protecting these workers, the system makes it harder for them escape.”
Migrant workers often live as virtual prisoners, with their passports confiscated. They work extraordinarily long hours for pitiful wages, and endure physical and demeaning psychological abuse, with no holiday or freedom of movement.
Workers told Human Rights Watch of working up to 18 hours per day for weeks on end without breaks, of surviving off leftovers, being forbidden from contacting their own families, and being unable to ever leave their employers’ homes unaccompanied.
"My madam and her husband, they would not allow me to use a mobile phone," 'Ira', one of the domestic workers interview for the report said. "They would not even allow me to carry any money in my pocket.
"Since they hired me in Kuwait, they held my passport. We came to Saudi Arabia and I never saw my passport. We came to the UK, and I never saw it.
Some were paid wages as little as £100 per month, despite being promised more, and sometimes even these meagre salaries were withheld on spurious causes.
The UK's new law which abolishes the right of a migrant domestic workers to change employer once they are in the UK, means migrant domestic staff cannot flee abuse, trapping them in a "tied visa".
If they run, they are illegal immigrants and vulnerable to further exploitation. If they return home having fled an abusive employer, they and their families could be targets.
“Workers who are mistreated now face a horrendous choice: either endure the terrible abuse, or escape and become undocumented migrants, where of course they are much more vulnerable to further abuse and exploitation,” said Leghtas.
“It’s abhorrent that anyone should be tied into abuse in this way.”
The report is timed to coincide with the bringing forward of a modern slavery bill by Home Secretary Theresa May, which will increase penalties for slavery, servitude, forced labour, and human trafficking from 14 years to life imprisonment. It makes no reference at all to the plight of domestic workers, Human Rights Watch said.
It is in the Gulf States where the most serious abuses of domestic workers have been documented, in a system known as the Kafala. The Kafala system gives employers power over the movement of their foreign worker and in some cases, whether they can leave the country. The UK law, HRW said, is effectively acting as an extension to the Kafala system for rich Gulf families living in the UK.
In June 2011, the UK was one of only nine countries that did not vote in favour of the International Labour Organisation Domestic Workers Convention.
“The UK government is failing in its duty to protect migrant domestic workers, who all too often are victims of horrific hidden abuse,” Leghtas said.
“If it’s serious about ending what it calls modern day slavery, the government should recognise just how vulnerable these workers are and give them the protection they deserve.”