Slavery in the UK

This is the story of Somalatha, who is from Sri Lanka. It is not her real name - you are about to find out why. It is a story that most people will disbelieve could occur in modern-day Britain. Sadly, it is true. It happened very recently

Somalatha arrived in Britain when she was 29 with a family for whom she had been working in Jordan. Her job was to be a maid. She had to work 16 to 18 hours a day, for which she was paid £200 a month. In the first two years, she was not given one day off.

She was not allowed to eat with the family and had to wait for leftovers. If there were none, she was advised to eat onions and potatoes. If any food was missing, she was automatically blamed for it, or even punished.

Somalatha had to sleep on a sofa-bed in the sitting room, where she was disturbed by anyone who came in late. Friday nights were especially difficult since the teenage children would come home late at night and bring their friends, which would prevent her from sleeping.

Her employer deliberately let Somalatha's visa expire. Since she was without a visa, she could not run away. She kept asking for a letter from her employer so she could apply to renew her visa but this was refused.

Under current law, women like Somalatha have a way out. But the Government is about to close her escape route. Earlier this year it proposed changes to the law which will divide migrants to the UK into five tiers according to their perceived skills and the economic benefit they will bring to the country.

This system makes no mention of women like Somalatha. But immigration officials have told Anti-Slavery International - one of the three charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal - that domestic workers like Somalatha will henceforth be tied to the employers with whom they entered the UK, with no right to change employers - no matter how abusive their treatment.

It is not the only area in which modern forms of slavery are on the rise in Britain. A law against trafficking for forced labour was introduced after 23 Chinese workers lost their lives as they harvested cockles against a rising tide in Morecambe Bay in 2004. But the trade in human exploitation continues.

Many of the migrant workers from eastern Europe entering the UK, legally, as part of EU enlargement conditions are being lured by gangmasters into debt-traps from which they find it almost impossible to escape. "The traffickers charge large fees," says Anti-Slavery's director, Aidan McQuade, "with the lure that these can be repaid with high wages earned in the UK. Fees can range from several hundred to thousands of pounds and the interest rates which are charged can be very high so that, in effect, they never get out of debt."

Somalatha was rescued by one of Anti-Slavery International's partner organisations, Kalayaan, which runs a community centre offering advice on immigration and employment law. But many others still suffer. A survey of Kalayaan's clients showed that 75 per cent reported psychological abuse and more than a third were physically abused.

Until now the law has offered some help to women like Somalatha, allowing them to change employers so long as they are in full-time employment as a domestic worker in a private household. But, under Labour's immigration crackdown, this is about to be changed so such workers lose the right to change their employer. Campaigners fear this will mean employers will keep workers on illegally, making them easier to exploit.

"It will mean they lose vital protection against violence, mistreatment and exploitation," says Kate Roberts, a community support worker at Kalayaan. "They will effectively lose basic protection under UK employment law - their entitlement to the national minimum wage, statutory holiday pay and a notice period - because, in practice, these women almost always live-in and won't take a legal case against their employer until they have, as they put it, 'run away'."

Kalayaan and Anti-Slavery International have begun a campaign to keep the law as it is - allowing such workers the right to leave their original employers while maintaining their immigration status as a domestic worker. It also allows them to apply for settlement rights after four years.

But the exploitation goes beyond domestic workers. A group of Polish workers working in a chicken-packing factory near Exeter was recently discovered by a trade union to be living in a house with no furniture. They were sleeping on bare mattresses and using an electric cooker with its wires stripped bare and pushed straight into the socket. Their gangmasters had threatened them with eviction and loss of two weeks' wages if they dared to tell anyone about their conditions.

The men and women had been recruited in Poland to come to England on legal work permits. Two men from an English recruitment agency went to a central Polish city to interview workers. They promised the minimum wage of £4.50 an hour, accommodation for £25 per person per week and lots of overtime. But the gangmasters exploit their victims' ignorance of the law and inability to speak English. They make exorbitant additional deductions from wages - for "worker registration" or "visa extensions". The Poles - several of whom were given the same national insurance number - had huge deductions made for tax, which were never paid to the Inland Revenue. They paid £40 rent each, although they were sleeping on the floor, and even though the legal maximum for rent for people on a minimum wage is just under £25.

Those who cannot be controlled by such means are threatened. Anti-Slavery came across two men from Vietnam who had had to pay £18,000 for their jobs in the UK. They came to Britain under a legal work permit scheme and were promised wages of £4.95 per hour. But when they arrived they had their passports taken from them and were made to work for two months without any pay. In protest, they tried to go on strike. Almost immediately, their families back in Vietnam received threats of physical violence

Such is the seamy underside of life for the workers we see in our motorway services, as casual labour in ports, working in restaurants, hotels and in nail parlours or doing our laundry.

Slavery, it seems, is alive if well hidden, in Britain, in the 21st century.

Labour's U-turn

* 1990s In opposition, the Labour Party pledged to legislate to end the exploitation of migrant domestic workers.

* 1998 One of Tony Blair's early steps in office was to pass a law allowing such workers to change their employer, renew their visa to stay and, after four years, apply to settle in the UK.

* 2004 In wake of deaths of cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay, Government passes the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act, a system for registering labour in the agricultural, shellfish and related packing and processing sectors.

* 2006 Under its consultation exercise Making Migration Work for Britain, Labour proposes to rescind the rights of migrant domestic workers. It refuses to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings.