Migrant Domestic Workers (Visas) Debate, secret slavery in the uk, ‘my last two weeks as an MP’.

In which Salter gives away the date of the election, and names and shames a foreign embassy for keeping slaves.
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair] — Migrant Domestic Workers (Visas)
Westminster Hall debates, 17 March 2010
9:30 am
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
It is a pleasure to be under your guidance, Mr. Benton, for what is probably the last Adjournment debate of my time in Parliament. I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to praise the work of not only some superb non-governmental organisations active on this issue but those right hon. and hon. Members who have been more involved with the subject than I have been.
I am a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which in 2008 produced a strong and hard-hitting report on the obscenity of human trafficking. The title of this debate refers to visa rights for migrant domestic workers, but it will become apparent that what we are actually discussing is a secret slavery taking place a stone’s throw away from this building. For the most abused groups of vulnerable workers, the dark ages are still happening, just around the corner from this mother of Parliaments. It is a scar on this country that such things occur within our borders; it is certainly a scar on the conscience of the diplomatic missions that use diplomatic immunity and their privileged position to treat fellow human beings in the most appalling, disgusting, dehumanising and disgraceful manner. It must stop. That will be the thrust of my contribution and, I am sure, the contributions made by other right hon. and hon. Members.
Before I come to the substance of the debate, I would like to thank Kalayaan for its work. Kalayaan is a charity offering direct support to migrant domestic workers. It was instrumental in arguing for the new migrant domestic worker visa, which has worked, as I will demonstrate, but which sadly does not extend to migrant domestic workers employed in diplomatic missions. Kalayaan runs advice sessions with a focus on immigration and employment, as well as an excellent community centre, which I had the privilege to visit the other week. It also runs activities for clients, including English classes, training, and confidence building workshops. It hosts a social area, too-a safe space where migrant domestic workers can meet other people and access advice and support away from the ever-watchful eyes of their wealthy employers.
The newspapers are full of criticism of my trade union, Unite-the old Transport and General Workers Union-of which I am proud to be a member, as I will be until my dying day. I pay tribute to the work of Diana Holland of Unite, who has made the issue of migrant domestic workers a personal crusade. I am delighted that she might be heartened, depending on the Minister’s answers-I know that he wants to agree with me-by the continued progress that we could make on the issue if we used the powers available to us.
The issue involves the abuse of some of the most vulnerable people in our country, if not our society-they are barely in our society. For many of us on the left side of politics, such issues are what brought us into public life and politics in the first place. However, of course, concern does not exist only on the left. We must acknowledge the huge contribution made by Mr. Steen-I want to call him my hon. Friend-who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on the trafficking of women and children. It is probably one of our most active all-party groups and has an impressive track record, having organised an important meeting with the Minister on 24 November to highlight the abuse of migrant domestic workers and the workings of the migrant domestic worker visa system. His response is still sought.
I understand that the all-party group has set up 11 such groups in Parliaments across Europe. That is a genuine example of how the much-maligned all-party parliamentary group system can forge important links across national boundaries.
Anthony Steen (Totnes, Conservative)
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
It is my great privilege to give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Anthony Steen (Totnes, Conservative)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman-my hon. Friend, if I may call him that. We all feel great affection for the Minister. We enjoy his company and think that he does a jolly good job. It is true that on 24 November, I took a delegation of some of the most senior people in this House and the House of Lords, along with representatives from Kalayaan-a group to which I pay tribute-to see him and explain to him the terrible problem of domestic slavery among diplomatic overseas staff. He understood the point, and the group and I were left in no doubt that he would act on it. However, lovely as it is to see him here, I hope that he will be able to tell us that today is his opportunity to put matters right.
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I remain optimistic that when the Minister hears the power of our arguments, he will cast aside the bleating and whining of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other powerful vested interests, be forthright and join us as a brother in arms on the issue. I have no doubt about it; at least, I certainly hope that he will if he wants to stay on my Christmas card list.
Before 1997-this is not a party political point-migrant domestic workers had virtually no rights. They were brought into this country by wealthy foreign nationals, and probably by even wealthier British expats, who, I am assured, like continuity in their domestic servants. There was no specific visa. Migrant domestic workers were often given a bizarre “to work with” stamp on their passports. It was a grey area. Alternatively, they were brought in on tourist visas and encouraged to overstay, as they would then have absolutely no rights. Their passports were often confiscated, leaving them totally in thrall to their employers. Migrant domestic workers’ undocumented status effectively created a bonded labour scheme, which was undoubtedly a trigger for abuse.
In the 1997 manifesto, the Labour party committed to introducing a new migrant domestic worker visa that would allow workers independence from their employers. It was launched in 1998. I have no doubt that a Government of almost any political persuasion would have wanted to address the issue, but it is to the credit of this Government and the Minister’s colleagues that the visa was introduced.
The migrant domestic worker visa is now issued to people entering the UK accompanying an employer to work in the employer’s private household. It provides protection against abuse. It provides formal recognition of migrants as workers and allows them to change employers, although not their work sector. Migrant domestic workers are therefore no longer bonded to a specific employer. It was a civilising and thoroughly laudable change, introduced by this Government.
The visa may be renewed annually, provided that the worker continues to be employed full time as a domestic worker in a private household. It provides an escape route from bonded labour for people suffering abuse. I will cite some harrowing case studies later to illustrate what types of abuse occur. Nevertheless, migrant domestic workers across the piece still experience high levels of abuse and exploitation. There is now at least an escape route through the visa system, but that system does not apply to the staff of diplomatic missions. That will be the nub of my argument.
Things nearly went wrong. In 2006, the Government introduced the points-based system, which the Home Affairs Committee considered in some detail. For some reason, initial proposals were made to abolish the migrant domestic worker visa, which would have resulted in the loss of the current protection for migrant domestic workers, who instead would have had to enter the UK on a six-month, non-renewable visa that would tie them completely to their employer and give them no effective access to UK law. However, following campaigning by the all-party group and Kalayaan, the Government gave a welcome response.
In 2008, the Government response to a consultation on visitors to the UK gave a commitment to retaining the migrant domestic worker visa, at least until spring 2011. I shall read into the record the response from the Minister’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr. Byrne:
“In our consultation paper, we set out the current arrangements for overseas domestic workers who accompany their employer to the UK, recognising stakeholder concerns that such workers may be the target of employer abuse and exploitation. We explained that research and analysis was being conducted into the route, following which we would consult further on future arrangements.
We are committed to ensuring that future arrangements concerning overseas domestic workers minimise any risk of abuse or exploitation. In addition, the current route will be preserved and then reviewed as appropriate after the first two years’ operation of the reformed immigration system and when we will have properly road tested our antitrafficking strategy.”
He confirmed that point in a follow-up letter to Diana Holland of Unite, so it is on the record that the Government are committed to that policy, at least until 2011.
Today, the Minister can not only commit this Government to the policy, but say that he will tie the hands of a future Government so that they have to continue with it, because it works. By tying the hands of a future Government, we might untie the hands of people who are forced into mediaeval, feudal slavery. I hope that he will rise to that challenge.
If hon. Members will bear with me, I wish to share some horrific case studies. I apologise for going on at length, Mr. Benton, but this is an important issue and I wish to put the case studies on the record. I am indebted to Kalayaan for this information. I will cite four examples: two from the domestic sector and two from the diplomatic sector. The names have been changed for obvious reasons.
The first case study gives proof that the visa works if the domestic worker understands the rights that they can access. It is the story of Rosy, who comes from Nigeria:
“My name is Rosy. Life was hard ever since my childhood. Fatherless at the age of 8, I had to help my mother to look after my siblings while she was away to work in the farm. I was an out of school youth at the age of 14 because my mother could not afford my education anymore. I had to face humiliation when my boyfriend left me pregnant. A teenage mum at 16, I was too young to face this kind of heavy responsibility but I had to be strong and brave. Without any qualification, I set off in another land in Nigeria in search for a job that would give my daughter and family a better life.”
She went on to work in difficult circumstances.
In 2004, Rosy was offered work in London for people who needed a domestic worker:
“The employer said that I will have the opportunity to be a British citizen and I will be paid 50 pounds per week which was higher compared to my 2000 Naire per month. I was reluctant to accept the job because I was too frightened that I will be all alone in a foreign land with no-one to turn to. But my dream of giving my family a better life had softened my heart to accept the job.”
This is the shocking part:
“My employer is a lawyer. I did not know anything about my legal rights in this country and I only had to depend and believe every single word or command that she has to say. My responsibilities were looking after her two children and fully in charge of all the household chores and in some occasions, looking after her extended family and friends. With long hours of work and no day off, I had to pray for midnight to come so that at least I could rest for a few hours.
My employer began to abuse me both verbally and physically. My ears were already numb from her shouting, calling me illiterate and stupid. Worst, more often, she would twist my ear, pinch and slap me for every little mistake that I had done. She would threaten me and say that the police will arrest me if I cry or talk to anyone. I cried every night and asked God, ‘Is this the life I deserve?’ or ‘Are all people in this country as heartless as my employer?’ or ‘Is it true that, in this country, I could not speak out and cry?’ I thought, gone are those days where people have to work as slaves but I was a slave, a modern slave in these modern days.
One day, I received a call from my brother back home. Worried that something bad was happening with my family back home, I rushed outside to buy an international phone card. However, my employer did not allow me to go outside without asking permission, and she discovered that I had disobeyed her golden rules. She was very angry and began to shout and beat me. She smacked me around my face, head and upper body while chasing me down the stairs. My left eye was bruised and bloodshot after this incident. As I could not bear the pain, I cried very loudly and our neighbour heard the noise and knocked on the door but my employer did not open the door.”
The lawyer did not open the door. Rosy goes on:
“One morning, the neighbour saw my bruised eye and asked about it. I told her everything and she explained to me that my employer had no right to abuse me and that I could report her to the police and most importantly, she said I had the right to speak out. I finally found answers to my questions. This kind and loving woman did everything to help me so that I could get out of that cage where I was treated, not as a human being but as an animal and a slave.
An organisation called Kalayaan helped me with everything I needed and referred me to the Kensington Law Centre who helped me pursue the case against my employer which I won in the Employment Tribunal.”
Hon. Members need to appreciate that without the migrant domestic worker visa, there would have been no opportunity to access the employment rights or the legal protection that other workers enjoy.
Rosy continues:
“I also received support from Liberty. The police’s initial response was that no crime had taken place because it was an employment issue. Thanks to Liberty, the police have now reopened the case and are investigating an allegation of trafficking against my previous employer.
Although the Employment Tribunal found that my employer withheld my wages, abused me verbally and physically and discriminated against me on grounds of my race, I do not feel that I have had justice for the way that I was treated. My employer is a lawyer and I wanted her to know that she is not supposed to treat people in the way she treated me. She should know that she is not above the law. I wanted the police to ask her why she did it and for her to be punished. Most of all, I do not want anyone else to have to go through what I went through.
I am now fully aware of my rights as a worker and as a human being, I dare to challenge and am always ready to face bravely any forms of abuse, discrimination, inequality and slavery in this modern world.”
That was Rosy’s story.
The next story is from the diplomatic sector. The name has again been changed for fear of reprisals. Aliah jumped at the opportunity to work for a diplomat posted to the embassy of a middle eastern country in London, but her dream job soon turned into a nightmare. She found herself trapped for six months in slavery with an employer who routinely abused her. She says:
“At first I was really excited to move to London and work for the diplomat and his wife. The plan was that I would live with the family and be a nanny to their young son. I hoped to learn English, and experience what life was like outside of my country. I thought I could earn some money so that when I came home I could study.
I moved to London with the diplomat a couple of weeks before his wife and child arrived. I quickly realized I had made a terrible mistake in taking the job. From the very first day I was treated like a slave, and it immediately became clear that the diplomat wanted more from me than just to look after his son. He sexually molested me and would become angry when I refused his advances.
In many ways life became even worse when the diplomat’s wife arrived. I was forced to work for 17 hours a day doing all the cooking and cleaning as well as the nanny work and was never allowed a day off. The wife would stand over me and criticize everything I did. She would get violent and throw things at me as well as shouting at me and calling me names.
I was completely trapped like this for 6 months. I was only ever allowed to leave the house to buy milk. I am embarrassed to admit it but I actually used to look forward to going to the shop. It was the only chance I had to see the outside world.
One day the diplomat got really angry with me. His wife had thrown me out of the house and when, after walking around for a few hours, I returned, the diplomat was drunk and furious. I was too scared even to answer as to where I had been, he became really violent, he threw me against the wall and started bashing my head against the front door. I was so scared that I knew I had to escape, when a car passed and stopped I seized my chance.
I ran straight into the street. I didn’t know anybody, didn’t have any identity documents and didn’t have any money. I was crying uncontrollably and bleeding from my head, I was lucky that a man who spoke my language spotted me. Eventually I explained to him that I needed his help and though he was a complete stranger he took me in and agreed to help me.
He took me to the police to report what had happened and they sent me to the hospital. The man then took me to see Kalayaan to see what could be done for me. They agreed to help me seek justice. Despite working for 6 months I had not been paid a penny. But apart from wanting my rightful earnings I really wanted to make sure that the diplomat and his wife were punished for what they did to me.
Lawyers helped me take the case to a tribunal, my employer never responded and on the evidence they had been given, the tribunal ruled in my favour and awarded me compensation for unpaid wages and sexual discrimination. The only problem is that obviously my employers have diplomatic immunity and the Embassy sent them home to avoid further embarrassment.”
That means that Aliah’s employers have escaped punishment and it is impossible for her to receive the compensation and justice that she deserves.
There are countless other cases. I have information about a lady called Chinue from Kenya who was beaten appallingly and psychologically abused by her employer. Luckily, she has been able to find work through the POPPY project and has put her life back on track again. Another case concerns Maria from the Philippines, who worked for the family of a diplomat in his home and agreed to accompany him to London. The conditions were nothing like she expected. She had to sleep on the floor in the hallway outside the bathroom, and she was made to sign something that stated she was receiving more salary than she was. She was forced to work for 18 hours a day, and she was shouted at and called an illiterate idiot or mountain folk by the diplomat’s wife.
Maria came to Kalayaan for advice when she discovered that her only choice was to return to the Philippines because her visa does not cover the diplomatic area. She was distraught at that news. Things got worse in the house. Two months later, Maria was physically attacked by the diplomat’s wife who tried to slash her with a kitchen knife, and Maria fled. She took a case against her employer, but settled for a very low amount because she wanted to move on with her life.
David Simpson (Upper Bann, DUP)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this important adjournment debate. It is good to hear the news that the Government will extend the visa scheme until 2011. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman because we have had four similar cases in my constituency. Does he agree that it is essential we get this right, because we cannot operate some of our most essential services in Great Britain without these people?
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
I agree entirely. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and for confirming that the problem is clearly not just confined to London-unless he has moved constituencies. It is useful to hear that such an appalling situation is widespread, as it puts more pressure on the Minister to respond publicly.
Anthony Steen (Totnes, Conservative)
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
Very briefly.
Anthony Steen (Totnes, Conservative)
The hon. Gentleman need not rush. There is plenty of time and everyone wants to hear what he has to say-I certainly do. May I just mention that the problem is not confined to women? Men are abused too. I recollect that a man who was a diplomatic driver for an embassy spent his life in a garage, where he slept. Does the hon. Gentleman know about that case?
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
Do I know about that case? I saw that case. I will not name the embassy because it would probably be inappropriate for me to cause an international incident in my last two weeks as an MP. However, I will say that it was a south Asian high commissioner’s residence. If people want to look at my interests in south Asia, they can probably work it out. I was invited to a very salubrious dinner at the high commissioner’s-we all get to go to such things from time to time. I was appalled to walk out of that residence in a palatial part of north London and see that the accommodation of the guy who picked me up-the driver for the high commissioner-was a garage. He showed me where his bed was. Such things are happening with impunity and they are an abuse of immunity.
As we know, the migrant domestic worker visa was introduced from 1998 onwards. People may argue that if we extend the visa to the diplomatic sector, large numbers of people would get protection, and possibly the right to settle permanently in the UK in certain circumstances. It was also argued-I think primarily by civil servants-that introducing the migrant domestic worker visa could lead to abuse and an increase in numbers. I am delighted to say that has not proved to be the case. If we consider the number of non-diplomatic domestic worker visas issued between 2005 and 2009, we see that the figure decreases from 16,908 to 14,897. Let us be clear: the process has not been abused. On extending the scheme to diplomatic staff, the numbers of diplomatic domestic workers visas that have been issued are: 235 in 2005, 324 in 2006, 253 in 2007, and 189 in 2008. Those are tiny numbers. There is no problem with extending the migrant domestic workers visa provision to protection for diplomatic staff. We are talking small numbers, but my goodness, we are talking high levels of abuse.
Figures on the people who were referred to or came voluntarily to Kalayaan-they can be found on its website in its excellent annual report-show that 17 per cent. reported physical assaults, 58 per cent. reported psychological abuse and 59 per cent. were not allowed out of the house without supervision. We allow our pets out of the house without supervision, yet fellow human beings are effectively being shackled in their place of work.
William Cash (Stone, Conservative)
Has the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to get in touch with the diplomatic service, because there is an organisation that represents diplomats as a whole? Has he taken the matter up with that organisation, because it sounds as if this is such an outrageous abuse that something should be done either by the law or by internal diplomatic activity? The people concerned should be ashamed of themselves.
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: they should be ashamed of themselves. I will come to that point later. Unfortunately, I have not had time to take the matter up with organisations representing diplomats. I must say to him that the more I read of these case studies, frankly, the less I want to be in a room with organisations representing diplomats. However, I am sure that those who succeed me in this place will not let the baton drop until we remove the appalling levels of abuse that are happening not just in London but in other parts of the United Kingdom, as I have just heard.
In many cases, workers have absolutely no knowledge of their immigration rights and status. If their passports and papers are confiscated, the employer has the absolute whip hand. Such workers live in fear of criminal prosecution, deportation or any sort of threat-valid or otherwise-that the employer can choose to make. We outlawed slavery in 1833, which was an awfully long time ago. As far as I can see, what is happening is little better than a 21st-century system of slavery.
What needs to be done next? First, as I said, the Minister and his colleagues deserve great praise for not only tackling the abuse of migrant domestic workers in the past by introducing a specific visa, but wanting to extend it beyond the 2011 commitment given by his predecessor in the Government’s response. My first challenge to the Minister is that he takes this opportunity to offer long-term protection for this most vulnerable group of workers, beyond 2011. He can do that today; he can it read it into the record.
Secondly, as I have mentioned, appalling and completely unacceptable abuse is still occurring in some-not all-diplomatic missions in London right now. It is an affront to a civilised society and a scar on the conscience of nations whose representatives are still prepared to treat their fellow human beings as 21st-century slaves. What they do in their own countries is one thing, but what they do in our country is a matter for us and for this Parliament. Frankly, I do not give a flying fig about the representations from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the worries about upsetting important international partners. This is a domestic British issue, and it needs to be resolved.
We have confirmation from Government lawyers that extending the migrant workers domestic visa to diplomatic missions would not be in contravention of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. What diplomats bring in their diplomatic bags may be a matter for them, but how they treat fellow human beings and how they bring fellow human beings as workers into our country is a matter for us and for our legislative process. Migrant domestic workers suffering abuse at the hands of diplomats must be empowered to access the same employment rights as their counterparts in the domestic sector.
Will the Minister state today that he is prepared to bring an end to the disgraceful abuse of diplomatic domestic workers by a handful of embassies that clearly believe that human rights are a problem for someone else and not for them? Diplomatic immunity can never be used as a cover for feudal servitude, which has no place on this planet, never mind in the capital city of one of the most advanced democracies in the world.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

It was remiss of me not to refer to the process by which we are all here. Would the hon. Gentleman pay tribute to the excellent piece in The Times in January by Alice Fishburn and Hattie Garlick highlighting the brilliant work of Kalayaan, and some the case studies to which I referred? I put on the record my thanks to the staff in my office, including Sadie Smith, whom I do not treat like slaves, who drew the matter to my attention and suggested that it was something I might like to get involved in. It is a tribute to the way this Parliament works that a Member can spot an injustice and in a few weeks be here challenging the Minister. Long may it remain that way.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I have given a full and deserved tribute to the hon. Member for Totnes for the excellent work he has done on this issue. I shall give him some comfort as well. Although I shall be leaving this placeshortly, I shall remain a member of my trade union. I am going abroad for a few months, but I pledge to work with him, Unite and Kalayaan on taking the issue forward when I return to the UK.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman highlights the statistics eloquently. About 200 to 300 visas are issued, and about 10 per cent. of people with those visas find their way to Kalayaan. We hon. Members know, from our casework, that only a tiny proportion of people who suffer from an injustice take action to try to remedy it. The problem could be considerably more widespread than the raw statistics suggest. Does he not agree?

Photo of John Hemming

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley, Liberal Democrat)

That is true, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. People will be here for more than one year at a time, so there are perhaps 500 such people here at any time. We are talking about a high percentage of people being willing to take the risk of a sanction against them-that is the critical thing.

Photo of Martin Salter

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

And their families.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I did not hold back in my criticism of abuse by diplomats, but the nub of the problem that led to the Government introducing the migrant domestic worker visa-we have illustrated that it is working well-was that it affected not just foreign nationals; plenty of British expats were happy to behave as feudal barons in their own homes, and they were part of the initial problem that was identified and that led to the visa. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should be tough on the diplomats, but should remember that some of our own have fallen short of the standards that we in Britain expect?

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I hesitate to criticise a fellow Reading football club fan, and I know that the hon. Gentleman is supportive of the issue, but there is a certain strangeness in the argument that although it might be okay to right a wrong that affects 10 per cent. of people, the fact that we do not know whether it might affect 15, 20 or 25 per cent. is an excuse for doing nothing. Let me press the hon. Gentleman, as I pressed the Minister: would a future Conservative Government extend the migrant domestic worker visa to diplomatic domestic workers-yes or no?

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I was disappointed by his weasel words when he did not give a clear commitment on what he would do if he were fortunate enough to be the Minister, but on reflection, it is probably incumbent on me to say that it was at the residence of the Pakistan high commissioner of several years ago that I witnessed what I described. I hope that the situation has now been remedied.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

Let me just put on record the fact that the decline in the numbers applying for migrant domestic worker visas covered 2005, 2006 and 2007, when the economy was in much healthier shape than it is now. Irrespective of the economic circumstances, the general trend is down.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I think that what he has said is progress. To be clear, the Government are saying that the protection will continue beyond 2011, in its current form or a new, improved form.

Published in: on March 20, 2010 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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