by Cong B. Corrales
FILIPINOS who think that working in a First World country is a guarantee of better working conditions may be in for a surprise.
Human Rights Watch has released a report documenting the suffering of domestic workers in the United Kingdom, with dire working conditions ranging from the confiscation of passports, to psychological and physical abuse, to non-payment of wages. Many of the migrant workers that HRW talked to for its study involved domestic workers from the Philippines.
In its 58-page report, “Hidden Away: Abuses against Migrant Domestic Workers in the UK,” HRW documents the experiences of migrant domestic workers who also complained of physical confinement to the work places, to extremely long working hours with no rest days.
Released on Monday, the report also said the UK government failed to fulfill its obligations under international law that protects migrant domestic workers and their access to legal remedies in cases of maltreatment.
“Every year around 15,000 migrant domestic workers come to the UK with their employer. We have found that many of them are subject to high levels of abuse that constitutes forced labor,” said Izza Leghtas, HRW Western Europe researcher.
“It’s scandalous that in modern Britain migrant domestic workers are subject to such appalling abuses,” Leghtas said adding, “But instead of protecting these workers, the system makes it harder for them to escape.”
In an emailed press advisory, HRW noted that in April 2012, the British government abolished the right of migrant domestic workers to change employers once they are inside the UK. This is against the recommendations of its parliament, non-government organizations and United Nations experts, HRW said.
Human Rights Watch called on the UK government to rescind this “tied visa” policy, which is says leads to so many other forms of abuse.
“Under the terms of the new ‘tied visa,’ overseas domestic workers cannot legally leave their employer and find new work, meaning those abused can become trapped,” HRW said.
“Workers who are mistreated now face a horrendous choice: either endure the terrible abuse, or escape and become undocumented migrants, where of course they are much more vulnerable to further abuse and exploitation,” said Leghtas. “It’s abhorrent that anyone should be tied into abuse in this way.”
All of the domestic migrant workers’ full names are withheld for security reasons.
“They (the employers) told me you can’t work for someone else. I saw it in the passport but I can’t read English. She always treated me badly, shouting… Sometimes I slept one or two hours. They stayed up late. They didn’t care if I slept or not… If she had treated me well, I would never have left,” Zahia M., a Moroccan domestic workers employed by a Saudi family, on a new visa in London told HRW in January 19, this year.
HRW also produced a video report containing interviews with several victims who come from the Philippines.
“Working 24 hours on-call is a kind of slavery and if we have done a little mistake then they (employers) beat you or maybe they will tell you: Oh you’re not going to be paid because you’ve done this (mistake),” Phoebe, a member of the Filipino Domestic Workers Association in London, UK, told HRW.
Many domestic workers told HRW that their employers often shouted at them and called them demeaning names like “stupid,” “animal”, or “dog.” Worse, some of them were threatened with physical harm.
“Sometimes he was tired and he said, if I made a mistake, (or) there wasn’t a food he liked (because) the market was closed, ‘I can kill you and throw you to the sea,” Linda S., another Filipino domestic worker whose employer in Qatar brought her to the UK to work as a domestic worker for their adult son, told HRW.
“I decided to leave them… If I stay here I don’t know what would happen to me because they always locked me in the house. If there’s a fire what will my son’s future be? How will I help my mother,” asked Andrea N., a Filipino domestic workers who went to the UK with her employer—a diplomat from a Gulf country, told HRW in London in September 8, last year.
Leghtas said that because the domestic workers work in private households, much of the abuse takes place behind closed doors.
“Workers told Human Rights Watch of working up to 18 hours per day for weeks on end without breaks, not being fed properly and surviving off leftovers, being forbidden from possessing a mobile phone or contacting their own families, and being unable to ever leave their employers’ homes unaccompanied. Some were paid wages as little as £100 (US$160) per month and sometimes even these meagre salaries were withheld,” the HRW advisory reads in part.
“I work for them 105 hours a week. I work with this family (for) over a year and I don’t even have the day off that they have promised me. What we have agreed for my salary is £1,000 a month but they only give me £200,” Andrea N., domestic worker told HRW.
“The UK government is failing in its duty to protect migrant domestic workers, who all too often are victims of horrific hidden abuse,” Leghtas said.
“If it’s serious about ending what it calls modern day slavery, the government should recognize just how vulnerable these workers are and give them the protection they deserve,” she added.