The Modern Slavery battle was lost – but the war is far from over

Posted by Rachel Robinson on 26 March 2015

Last night was a sad one for all those who had hoped that we would finally see the back of the tied overseas domestic workers visa which has caused such misery to so many women.

The Modern Slavery Bill, designed as it is to fulfil this country’s Human Rights Act obligations to eradicate slavery and protect its victims, was the ideal vehicle to tackle what is a well-documented channel of abuse and exploitation. Since visa changes were introduced in 2012, those travelling to the UK to work in private or diplomatic households have been unable to legally change their employer in this country, leaving them at the mercy of the unscrupulous and abusive. As pointed out by Labour Leader in the Lords, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, this is in stark contrast to the provision made for victims of domestic violence who travel here on a spousal visa. They are rightly given a route to settlement to ensure they are not forced to remain in abusive relationships.

In this case, the campaigners and Parliamentarians calling for change were not asking for domestic workers to have a permanent right to remain, but simply the ability to temporarily extend their visas and change employer within their work sector. In February, during Lords consideration of the Modern Slavery Bill, Peers of all political affiliations and none voted through an amendment which would have restored this bare minimum of protection.

Last week, this progress was reversed in the Commons, where Ministers secured a feeble alternative amendment. The Government offered a six-month visa extension for those who have already convinced the authorities that they have been abused.  Under this model, individuals must take the risk that they will be disbelieved by the authorities if they seek to avail themselves of the meagre provision on offer. With only six months remaining on a visa, the possibility of securing employment in the sector is practically remote.

Last night the Government brought this amendment before Peers and prevailed – but not without a fight. Crossbench Peer Lord Hylton heroically defended the rights of this vulnerable group. He paid tribute to the Government for the positive steps it has taken in the Bill, but stood firm on the principle: “If Britain is a “moral community”, as Edmund Burke might of defined it, we cannot condone domestic slavery in our midst.

He was joined in his calls for basic protections by Baroness Royall, who reminded the House of the link between the tied visa and abuse of domestic workers: “Surely we can best facilitate the end of suffering and abuse for overseas domestic workers by listening to them, the charities that work with them and the independent expert groups which have looked at the issue. All of them are unanimous that to help prevent the abuse happening in the first place, the overseas domestic worker must be untied.”

The battle was lost – but the war is far from over. We at Liberty want to thank those courageous voices inside and outside of Parliament who have done so much to raise the profile of this issue. Charity Kalayaan, which works tirelessly to protect and support domestic workers. Justice for Domestic Workers, a group run by and for migrant domestic workers, whose members showed immense bravery in sharing their stories. Thanks to Lord Hylton, who – with the full machinery of Government against him – refused to give up. And thanks to you all: the Liberty members and supporters who joined the fight by contacting your MPs and signing our petition.

The Government has now committed to review the tied visa and a report is expected in July. We will continue to deliver our message in unequivocal terms: whilst there may be little we can do to prevent slavery and exploitation in other parts of the world, we can and must say “not on our soil”.

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson

Policy and Advocacy Manager