Most of the estimated 20,000 domestic servants in Britain are allowed in under a concession in the immigration law which enables foreign visitors to bring in domestic staff. They are liable to deportation should they stop working for their employer.
Threatened with this, some servants are prepared to endure abuse rather than return to their countries of origin. The Home Office does not keep full statistics but the numbers of migrant domestic workers arriving here is steadily increasing. In the first eight months of 1992, 8,613 entry clearances were issued under the concession.
According to Britain's Secret Slaves, a report jointly compiled by Anti- Slavery International and Kalayaan, an organisation which is campaigning to give domestic workers legal rights independent of their employers, many of these servants are treated with exceptional inhumanity.
The report, to be published later this week, includes a survey of 250 domestic servants of 17 nationalities. It found that 89.1 per cent were subject to psychological abuse. Most were also regularly denied food; were made to sleep in the hall, kitchen, or even toilet; and were not paid as promised or, in some cases, not paid at all. Most concern will be focused on the fact that nearly a third were victims of physical abuse and that 8.6 per cent suffered sexual abuse.
Alice was one victim. She came to London after two-and-a-half years of service in Kuwait. While in the UK, she was woken on one occasion at 4am and ordered to prepare breakfast for her employer. He followed her into the kitchen and attempted to rape her. 'I managed to kick him there, and he crawled back into his bedroom,' she said. 'But I was so frightened because he said he would kill me, and I didn't know what he would do.' The Indian housekeeper gave her pounds 50 and told her to run away. She escaped through a hole in the wall as all the doors were fitted with alarms to keep the servants inside the house.
Under British law, Alice then lost all legal rights. She had left her employer, breached the terms of her entry and had become an illegal immigrant. She, like most others, had no idea of the nature of her entry status in the UK. Most employers - according to the report, more than 80 per cent - confiscate the servants' passports when they arrive. Alice could not work legally for anyone else, nor receive any benefit from the state. She is vulnerable to further abuse from unscrupulous British employers who see the chance of cheap labour. 'I must work all the time because tomorrow maybe I will be picked up and sent home, or maybe I will be ill, and unable to earn money for weeks, because we are not eligible for any kind of benefit,' Alice said.
Alice is luckier than some because she, at least, is still in Britain. The Government has refused to recognise that the exploitation of domestic servants is a direct consequence of its refusal to grant these workers independent legal rights. They can only work for the employer they come to Britain with, whatever the level of abuse.
The report urges the Home Office to give domestic servants the right to change employers; and the right to settle after four years. Lord Hylton, long an advocate of improved rights for domestic workers, said: 'Proper protection is urgently needed. It is time to right the wrongs taking place on our own door step: the Government must give overseas domestic workers, often women who are the sole or principal bread-winner of the family, a status which recognises that they are workers.'
Britain's Secret Slaves; Anti-Slavery International, 180 Brixton Road, London SW9 6AT; pounds 5.50.