To end domestic servitude, first fix immigration policy

Thousands of people are in domestic servitude in the UK, and many are migrants. Photographer: Evil Erin

Details are still emerging in the case of three women who claim to have been held as slaves for three decades in a suburban house in London. The Metropolitan police have stated that a 69-year-old Malaysian woman, a 57-year-old Irish woman and a 30-year-old British woman were rescued from what they have said was domestic servitude, and a man and a woman both aged 67 were arrested by police and bailed until January.

The women’s exit was facilitated by charity workers and the police after one of the women telephoned a number provided in a television news report on forced marriage.

Forced labour is not a simple matter. Our research shows that any situation of severe labour exploitation results from a complex set of overlapping factors: rising employment precarity, restricted access to welfare, poverty, destitution and insufficient labour regulation, and often immigration status insecurity all combine to contribute to individuals’ entry into, continuation in, or preclusion of exit from forced labour.

The reality of domestic servitude

We spoke to 30 people who had made a claim for asylum and who had experiences of work in England involving International Labour Organisation indicators of forced labour. Of 107 labour situations our participants told us about, 14 involved domestic work and 10 involved care (mostly undertaken in the private domain).

The private and hidden nature of domestic work means it is often not regulated, leaving workers at particular risk of exploitation. Drawing a line between domestic work and domestic servitude is difficult, but a clear definition can be given: servitude is characterised by an unequal exploitative relationship between parties which the inferior party is unable to end by his or her own volition. Although domestic servitude is typically associated with women, our study found that the highly constrained circumstances of refused asylum seekers, who have no recourse to public funds and no right to work, also pushes men into forced labour in private homes.

The story of “Jay” is a good example. After six months together, Jay told his girlfriend that he was a refused asylum seeker when she queried his lack of cash. She invited him to live with her, but once he was in her house she revealed that she had two children with serious physical disabilities. She expected him to care for her children in return for accommodation and food. She would go out and leave him with the children, creating an effective form of confinement with no need to lock the door.

The relationship quickly deteriorated, as Jay described: “You know, at first it was nice but she turned to be nasty … I was not happy. I think I was being used like a slave. Like when she wants sex…you know what I mean.”

Jay did leave the house on shopping trips, a household chore he was required to perform. On one occasion, he used small change saved up over months to travel to find services who could help him access accommodation. Told that as a refused asylum seeker he was not eligible for housing support, he returned to the situation of coercive child care and abuse for another year. His social isolation in a domestic house meant he had no-one else to turn to.

The situation deteriorated as the emotional and psychological abuse increased.

“We had been together for I think, two years…I was not happy the way she was treating me. And then she said ‘you started to talk now too much, you want control. You know what? You are asylum seeker, you don’t have any rights to live in this country. I will call immigration for you, I’ll call police to take you back. So say if you want, you can live in the garage. You are not sleeping in my bed anymore’.”

The threat of denunciation to immigration authorities is a key tool of coercion used to exploit workers with insecure immigration status. For Jay, the risk of deportation was not simply a matter of returning home without having met expectations of sending money to family members faced by many migrants in low-paid work. As a refugee escaping political persecution, removal to his country of origin meant return to a place he had fled to protect his life, and where his family continued to suffer attacks.

Aneeta Prem, founder of Freedom Charity, which rescued the three women in Lambeth. Sean Dempsey/PA

Unhelpful policy

UK government sources commenting on the London case have been quick to indicate their determination to “tackle the scourge of modern slavery”. However, the focus on the prosecution of traffickers, rather than the protection of workers, means that new laws to be introduced in the Modern Slavery Bill will not be effective in countering forced labour.

This is because the government’s immigration policies are themselves responsible for migrants’ susceptibility to forced labour. The push to criminalise people who are working without permission is a major deterrent to abused workers seeking support. The continued reduction of the rights and entitlements of a whole spectrum of migrants leaves many with little option but to accept exploitative work. Furthermore, the removal of domestic worker visa holders’ right to change employers has significantly increased these workers’ vulnerability to exploitation.

At the same time, cuts to labour regulation are undermining protections for basic employment rights. Eroding these rights allows employers to act with impunity. Increasing penalties for the few likely to be convicted of trafficking will not operate as a disincentive to much more widespread abuses by exploitative employers in the absence of efforts to protect basic employment rights.

The particular circumstances of the three women’s situation remain vague, and the details of the last 30 years of their lives may never emerge as they are said to be deeply traumatised. But our research in cases of domestic servitude suggest that when threats and degrading treatment are combined with social isolation and confinement, workers all too easily lose any awareness that there are any real or acceptable alternatives to the abuse they are experiencing.

The fact that police have acted in this case is a significant step forward. However we need to focus more generally on the economy’s reliance on precarious work – work that too often turns into severely exploitative labour.