Looking in the wrong direction? Changes to the Overseas Domestic Worker Visa and its consequences
Bhoomika graduated in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. Apart from volunteering at MRN, she divides her time between migrants' rights organizations like Kalayaan and the Poppy Project where she provides advocacy and research support. She takes keen interest in issues of gender and migration, particularly labour and violence against women.
The government’s decision regarding the Overseas Domestic Worker visa was finally announced last week by the home secretary. According to the announcements, foreign cooks, nannies and other staff who come to work in private households no longer have the right to switch employers or stay longer than six months in the U.K.
Though this set of announcements did not surprise anybody who had been watching the developments over the last few months closely, the finality of the decision laid to rest the precarious optimism that many had harbingered. Even the little media attention and coverage it received was lost in the mayhem of Tier 2 (‘high skilled’) visa announcements. The sustained and uphill campaigns against the changes announced drew to a close, and now wait to face the disastrous consequences.
The announced changes will not only take us back in time but their legacy will corrode the faith of the ‘low skilled’ migrant domestic workers in the protection offered by UK employment and immigration laws. It was in 1998 that migrant domestic workers (MDWs) were issued with one-year renewable visas and the right to change employers after several years of campaigning.
Ever since, the protection offered by such a provision has proven to be positive in reducing the abuse and exploitation faced by the MDWs. It enabled MDWs to change employers, file complaints in the Employment Tribunal against abusive employers and exercise their right to the national minimum wage, in brief, strengthened their faith in the existing mechanism and the corresponding safeguards. The UK government has been continuously undermining such protections; last year, it abstained from voting for the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, the other abstaining countries being Czech Republic, El Salvador, Malaysia, Panama, Thailand, Singapore and Sudan. This was a sign of the times to come, and now it has gone a step backwards by instituting its very own kafala system.
Kafala is Arabic for ‘sponsorship’, a widespread practice in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (excluding Bahrain) to regulate the residency and employment of foreign workers including withholding the worker’s passport. The system, in effect, is designed to protect the employer rather than the employee. For example, MDWs or Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs), as they are known in the GCC countries, are not allowed to leave the employer’s house without their prior approval, in accordance with the ‘work contract’.
This provision allows for the abuse and exploitation of the OFWs without any sanctions against the employers. As research by the ILO indicates, migrant domestic workers in Lebanon do not have the right to withdraw their labour from their sponsor/employer without being rendered illegal and thus liable to arrest, imprisonment and deportation. This is similar to the new system that is now come into place in the U.K., which limits the period of stay for the MDWs to six months with no right to change employers. If they do so, they risk becoming undocumented, destitute and deportable, just like the OFWs in the GCC.
Thus, by announcing the changes to the ODW visa, the UK seems to have instituted its very own kafala system at a time when the kafala practicing countries themselves are witnessing progressive and OFWs centered changes, for example all the GCC countries voted in favour of the ILO Convention. The current government’s obsession with reducing the rights and the numbers of immigrant workers, particularly low skilled workers parallels the most restrictive models – be it the kafala system or Singapore’s regulation of the rights of the Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs). In Singapore, the work permit of a domestic worker can be cancelled by the employer without any prior notice, and the FDW can not change employers without permission from the current employer.
In both Singapore and Lebanon, instances of the abuse and exploitation of the domestic workers have only increased and the provisions benefit none but the employer. Despite the positive provisions offered in the U.K. until the announced changes, there is enough evidenceto describe the vulnerability of the MDWs to exploitation and abuse. One can only imagine the consequences for the domestic workers, who continue to arrive and work in the U.K., albeit in a vacuum of rights and safeguards. The U.K. government is definitely looking in the wrong direction.