The number of women suspected of being trafficked to perform housework in embassies and private houses in Britain has increased amid warnings that vulnerable workers have been denied an escape route from domestic servitude by new immigration rules.
Victims of domestic servitude referred to a specialist service helping trafficked people more than doubled in the six months to December, according to the Salvation Army which runs a £2m contract on behalf of the Ministry of Justice.
Charities working with foreign maids said the number of people being abused by their employers was likely to be far higher, with women refusing to tell the authorities for fear of being thrown out of the country.
The rise in domestic servitude comes amid a 25 per cent increase in the number of trafficking victims reported in 2012 to the national referral mechanism. The authorities say the increase to nearly 1,200 people could be attributable to both better detection of trafficking rings and an increase in the crime.
The Salvation Army said 37 women were referred to its network of safe houses and counselling services in the six months to December – compared with 31 in the year before that. National figures show a small increase in trafficking for domestic servitude over 2012 but charities say the figures do not reflect the true scale of the problem.
Figures show that the highest number of trafficked women were from Nigeria. Workers have reported suffering sexual, psychological and physical abuse at the hands of their employers with some effectively kept prisoner in the home for years for pitiful pay.
Until April last year, maids were able to move employer and stay in Britain on their visa as long as they remained in work.
However, under changes introduced last year, overseas domestic workers are allowed a maximum six-month visa and are not allowed to move employer. Maids who are brought over to work in diplomatic missions are allowed to remain for up to five years – but again only with the same employer.
Two organisations working with the maids – Kalayaan and Justice for Domestic Workers – said the change in the law meant that women were less willing to leave abusive employers. Those who did were increasingly going underground without any official documents, they said.
“The domestic worker depends on the employer for everything,” said Kate Roberts, of Kalayaan. “It doesn’t leave them with any option. They either have to remain in a situation of exploitation or leave and be in breach of their immigration status. They are driven underground or returned home and again become vulnerable to trafficking.”
Even before the law was brought in, Kalayaan identified 157 trafficked migrant domestic workers between 2008 and 2010 and two-thirds of those refused to be referred to the authorities. The group found more than half of the women had received wages of less than £50 a week and the majority had their passport withheld and were not allowed to go out unaccompanied.
The Home Office said the Government was committed to tackling trafficking. “The most effective way to do that is by working together to better identify and support victims and target the criminal gangs behind trafficking, not blaming immigration controls,” said a spokesman.
Case Study: I was told to call her ‘Auntie’ – then she enslaved me
Gigi, 24, is a Nigerian now at college in the UK after being rescued by the charity Eaves.
When I was about 12 years old my parents died in religious riots.
I met a lady who said she knew my family. She told me she would look after me. She told me to call her ‘Auntie’ and to do whatever she told me. When I was 15 years old, Auntie told me she was going to London.
I was treated like a slave and locked in the house for six years. I had to look after the children day and night, do all the housework and I had to sleep on the floor in the children’s room. I hardly slept and wasn’t given enough food. If Auntie went out with the children, I would be locked in the house.
I wasn’t allowed to answer the phone, open the curtains, watch TV or go into the garden. Once, she pushed me down the stairs and I found out I had fractured my arm. I was never paid for the work I did and I never had any healthcare. Auntie told me that because I was illegal the police would arrest me and send me back to Nigeria.
I felt desperate and most nights I cried myself to sleep.