My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very strong case, but I rise to strongly support Amendment 174, to which I have added my name. I am grateful to my friend Professor Fiona Williams, an important researcher on this issue, and Kalayaan, to whom I pay tribute for all their work on behalf of migrant domestic workers and for their briefings.
As we have already heard, it is clear that the 2016 reforms are not working. Rather than listening to overseas domestic workers and reinstating the original ODW visa, the 2016 changes ignore the need for workers to be able to exercise their rights before exploitation escalates. Support organisations such as Kalayaan and Voice of Domestic Workers report the bind in which the current situation leaves many such workers. Do they risk leaving before abuse escalates? If this abuse does not equate to trafficking, they could be left destitute, without a reasonable prospect of finding work and without access to public funds or legal aid to challenge mistreatment. The desperate need to remit money to one’s family and pay off debts means that workers may not feel able to risk leaving exploitative labour situations.
Professor Williams argues that key to understanding the problems faced has been the shift from placing ODW protection within an employment and immigration rights frame to a trafficking frame. The problem with the latter is that it puts the onus on the worker to prove that they have been trafficked when their exploitation may come from daily infringements of what should be their rights as workers. It leaves them more vulnerable to these infringements, not less.
Kalayaan has given me a recent case study that exemplifies the problem. I will go into some detail because it makes the case rather well. Jenny—not her real name—is from the Philippines. She comes from a poor family but, having won a scholarship to train as a teacher, she was unable to finish her training for various reasons. She later married and gave birth to a daughter who caught an aggressive form of pneumonia, which needed specialist costly private treatment. Jenny and her husband had to borrow money to pay for it. Their joint income could not cover the loan repayments, which prompted Jenny to look for work abroad.
Jenny moved to Lebanon to work as a cleaner. Her employer gave birth to a third child; Jenny was instructed to look after the baby as well as continue her cleaning duties, which was not in her contract. She worked longer hours than expected and was on the go and on call for much of the day. She had wanted to return home at the end of her first contract but was persuaded to stay when the family relocated to London. She was offered shorter working hours and pay at the national minimum wage.
Jenny arrived in the UK last year on a visa. In contravention of UK published policy, she was issued no information on her rights as a worker in the UK, either during the visa application process or on arrival. She worked the same long hours as before and, although she was paid a little more than in Lebanon, her hourly rate was less than half the national minimum wage. Her employer told her that she would be arrested if she left. Nevertheless, she did leave because she was exhausted from her long working hours for pay less than she had been promised.
Jenny approached Kalayaan when her visa had two weeks before it expired, having only just heard of the organisation. Kalayaan explained to her that her visa was non-renewable and that while she had permission to work in the UK, it would only be while her visa remained valid—for the next two weeks—after which she would be subject to the UK’s hostile/compliant environment for migrants. On the basis of Kalayaan’s assessment, it did not consider Jenny to be a victim of trafficking or slavery, so could not refer her to the NRM.
It is worth noting here that even cases that Kalayaan has judged appropriate for NRM referral are frequently turned down on the grounds that, while the working conditions may have breached employment terms, they do not constitute trafficking or slavery. Yet calls for the reinstatement of the original ODW visa are repeatedly met with the response that workers who have suffered abuse can avail themselves of the NRM.
Despite experiencing labour law violations, Jenny’s right to change employer was in practice of no use to her, given that she was not allowed to renew her visa. Had she entered the UK on the original kind of ODW visa, she would have remained visible to the authorities by renewing her visa annually, while contributing in taxes and visa renewal fees. Jenny’s case underlines how unhelpful it is to require maltreated migrant domestic workers to fit themselves into the slavery or trafficking frame, and how their rights would be better protected through the restoration of the original ODW visa.
Professor Williams also argues that the issue should be seen in an international context, where there have been very important advances in employment rights for domestic workers. In particular, ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers has been ratified by 35 countries—but not the UK. Ironically, when the convention was voted on, the UK Government abstained on the grounds that the UK already had a progressive policy—the OWD visa—which they then went on to withdraw. Will the Government therefore now rethink their position and restore the ODW visa without further delay?