Modern Slavery: Today MPs Must Take the Chance to Say 'Not on Our Soil'

When the Bill returns to the Commons today, we hope Parliamentarians will take the chance to put things right, ending a system which has seen the UK preside over the servitude of women brought to this country as slaves.

When Rupa escaped her employers, she was exhausted, tearful and desperate after years of verbal abuse. She had no money, no belongings and no passport, knew no one and had nowhere to go. For years she had taken sole care of her employers' child without breaks or leave, slept on the floor and been banned from going out alone. She was paid £26 a week.

This didn't take place in the UAE or Qatar, countries infamous for their disregard for migrant workers' rights. Rupa was forced to work as a slave in the UK. Like countless other foreign domestic workers - predominantly women - she is a victim of the Government's deeply-flawed tied visa system.

Launched in April 2012, tied visas bind employees to the employer they arrived to work for. Their introduction was part of Coalition efforts to meet a self-imposed cap on the number of migrants coming to our shores from outside the EU - apparently the ability of domestic workers to change employer and access the labour market was "contrary to general Government policy on low-skilled migration."

Notwithstanding the fact that the Government has unequivocally failed to meet that cap, domestic worker visas have stayed largely constant and amount to a tiny 2% of overall migration.

Overseas domestic workers are uniquely vulnerable, invariably coming from backgrounds of extreme poverty and reliant on their employer for both accommodation and wages. The tied visa leaves them even more defenceless, making them dependent on their employer for their right to remain lawfully in the UK too.

It gives abusive employers the green light to act with impunity. Workers are far less likely to report their actions to police for fear of deportation, choosing instead to tolerate ill-treatment - physical or sexual abuse, extremely long hours, withheld food and pay - or remain in the country undocumented. The wretched reality is that many will endure the most heinous mistreatment in order to obtain the ongoing income vital to sustain family members in their home country.

Tied visas are a hallmark of repressive regimes the world over - and there is overwhelming evidence that they have led to an increase in the abuse of vulnerable women here in the UK. Kalayaan - the leading organisation providing assistance to migrant workers in the UK - saw 120 domestic workers on the new visa between April 2012 and April 2014. Their evidence shows that:

  • 16% of new entrants on tied visas reported physical abuse, compared to 8% of those subject to the pre-April 2012 visa
  • 71% of those tied to an employer reported never being allowed to leave the house unsupervised, compared to 43% of those subject to the original visa
  • 60% of tied migrants were paid less than £50 per week, compared to 36% under the original visa.

These statistics are shocking, but not surprising. The legal route to change employers is internationally recognised as one of the most effective measures to protect domestic workers from modern slavery.

Tied visas are a grave policy mistake, the human toll of which has been exposed through a huge amount of voluntary work and NGO research. Today Parliament has the opportunity to put that mistake right.

This afternoon, MPs will vote on the Modern Slavery Bill - and decide whether to support or scrap a Lords amendment that would axe tied visas and restore some of the protections in place before April 2012. It would allow domestic workers to change employers, temporarily extend their leave to remain while in employment and, where they have left a situation of modern slavery, access a temporary three-month visa enabling them to reside in the UK while they seek new work.

But the Government - desperate to retain a policy so closely bound to its doomed immigration cap - is stubbornly blocking attempts to abolish tied visas. It has asked MPs to reject the Lords amendment, offering a watered-down alternative which would give six-month grace period. With only six months remaining on a visa, the possibility of securing employment in the sector is practically remote. Without work or recourse to public funds individuals are highly vulnerable to further exploitation.

In a last-ditch attempt to prevent real reform, the Government has also committed to review the system - but the tied visa has already been subject to significant scrutiny. Reintroduction of the pre-April 2012 protection has been endorsed by several cross party Committees, including the Draft Modern Slavery Bill Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and has the support of expert organisations working in the field.

When the Bill returns to the Commons today, we hope Parliamentarians will take the chance to put things right, ending a system which has seen the UK preside over the servitude of women brought to this country as slaves. As Baroness Hamwee told the House during the Lords' debate: "I do not say this lightly, but if I were not to support this amendment, I would feel complicity in slavery and servitude."

There may be little we can do to secure the safety of the vulnerable women held and treated as slaves by their employers elsewhere in the world - but we can say "not on our soil".

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