Politicians, campaigners and lawyers unite against modern slavery

Posted by Rachel Robinson on 21 November 2014

Yesterday evening lawyers, politicians and campaigners gathered in the House of Lords, united by our determination to ensure that the Modern Slavery Bill does not ignore the plight of those brought to this country as domestic workers.

Overseas domestic workers are incredibly vulnerable to abuse and changes to the visa system made in April 2012 mean that they are now unable to escape exploitation by changing their employer. Under current law, as Kate Roberts of ODW support group Kalayaan explained, they face the heart-breaking reality of telling enslaved workers they have few options. 

In the Chair, Diana Holland of Unite explained why the Union had become involved: “we represent workers and if we can’t represent the most vulnerable workers, we don’t deserve to call ourselves a trade union.” This is about human rights, she told us – we could not agree more. Article 4 of our Human Rights Act prohibits slavery and servitude absolutely. By bringing forward a Modern Slavery Bill the Government is acknowledging its obligations under the Act. But, as Labour MP Fiona MacTaggart stressed, the Bill must be about more than just looking good - it must be about doing good.

Last night’s host, Crossbencher Baroness Caroline Cox, spoke of the passion and pain which united those in the room. When the Bill returns to the House of Lords on 1 and 3 December, she will be calling for the reinstatement of the old, untied visa, described by the Home Affairs Select Committee as “the single most important issue in preventing the forced labour and trafficking of such workers”. HASC aren’t the only Parliamentary Committee to speak out on this issue. In their report last week, the cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights called for the pre-April 2012 visa to be reintroduced through the Modern Slavery Bill. 

During the Bill’s Commons passage, Members of all parties stood up for domestic workers' rights. Conservative MP and former Deputy Chief Whip John Randall explained why he would vote for a Labour amendment to protect domestic workers: he had “met too many victims to be able to say that it is a matter for another day.” 

The most moving and powerful contributions of last night came from domestic workers themselves. Three brave women got up to tell a packed room of their experiences of servitude, threats and abuse. The inspirational Marissa Begonia, who now coordinates campaign group Justice for Domestic Workers, explained that she was only able to escape her abusive employer thanks to the old visa regime. Marissa’s account is born out Kalayaan’s research which found that, since the tied visa came into force, the percentage of those reporting abuse had doubled. 

As Liberal Democrat Home Office Spokesperson Baroness Hamwee told us: “there is a huge feeling of concern and passion across the House on this issue…I’ve warned the Minister”. 

Liberty will continue to push hard for an amendment to the Bill providing genuine protection for domestic workers – and the support from Parliamentarians in the room last night shows we have every reason to be optimistic.  

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson

Policy and Advocacy Manager