Domestic workers employed by wealthy foreigners and diplomats in the UK are being beaten, abused and paid as little as £100 a month, according to a major new report.
Interviews with 33 overseas cleaners, nannies and cooks have revealed a system that is failing to hold abusers to account or help women to escape violent employers – many from oil-rich Gulf states – who brought them legally to Britain, according to Human Rights Watch.
Those who manage to flee generally find they have little legal right to remain in Britain, because of new visa rules introduced in 2012 that ban overseas domestic workers from switching employers.
The domestic workers, all but one of them women, told of working long hours, having their passports confiscated and working for far less than the minimum wage.
Some told of being given only leftovers to eat and of being locked inside and stopped from speaking to their families.
One of the women, a 38-year-old from the Philippines, told researchers that she was paid just £135 after a month in Britain, where she had travelled with her employers to look after their baby boy while he was in hospital.
She said she was denied toiletries and had to use the baby’s soap to clean herself. She made sanitary towels from the child’s nappies.
Another woman, who came to Britain from Qatar, said she had not been given sufficient food. “I sat with them in restaurants [in London] looking at them eating,” she said.
Some 15,000 domestic workers, many from Asia and Africa, travel to the UK every year with their employers. But the report points out that Britain is one of nine countries that refused to sign up to an international agreement last year giving domestic workers the same labour protections as other workers.
Under the changes introduced in 2012, overseas domestic workers are allowed a maximum six-month visa and are not allowed to change employers.
Charities have warned that this means they are dependent on the employer, and either have to remain in post while being exploited, or leave and be in breach of their immigration status.
A Home Office spokesman said: “Abuse of overseas domestic workers is unacceptable and we believe the best way to prevent it is by testing the validity of the working relationship before a visa is issued.
“Overseas domestic workers must have been employed for 12 months before a visa will be granted and must have a signed statement of terms and conditions of employment in line with the National Minimum Wage legislation.”
Case study: maid’s 105-hour week
One Filipino woman who worked for a diplomat’s family said that she had been forced to work 105 hours a week without a day off.
She told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that she had been promised £1,000 a month – but was paid only one fifth of that during her year’s employment.
“The day I escaped from them and went to the outside world, I told myself, I’m free,” she said. Her status in the UK remains unclear after she contacted the authorities to say she was a victim of trafficking. No action has been taken against her employers because of diplomatic immunity, according to HRW.
The woman said that she was still fearful of reprisals.