Service not servitude: Protecting the rights of domestic workers

employment, human rights, migration

Author(s):  Fiona Mactaggart
Published date:  17 Oct 2011
Source:  IPPR

It is time, over 200 years after the abolition to the transatlantic slave trade, to honour Britain’s fight against slavery in the past by ending domestic servitude and the exploitation of vulnerable workers in the present.

In June, the UK government abstained from the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, joining Sudan, Panama, El Salvador, Malaysia, Singapore, the Czech Republic and Thailand. Ashamed that the government would choose such allies to help their attempt to frustrate effective protection of basic employment rights for this group of workers around the world, I called a debate in parliament. In that debate, employment relations minister Ed Davey argued that the convention was not needed in the UK, as we already have a legal framework of employment rights and protections for domestic workers.

He claimed that when it came to protecting vulnerable workers ‘the key question is enforcement’. Together with Mathew Lawrence, I have written a report, Service not Servitude, published on the eve of Anti-Slavery Day (copies available from Our pamphlet challenges this claim and describes how domestic workers face mistreatment and abuse, which can be on a spectrum from failing to have a contract of employment to literal enslavement. In theory, domestic workers have similar protections as other workers, except in relation to health and safety. In practice, however, this is simply not the case. In the two years to March 2011 for example, 895 cases of trafficked workers were reported to the UK authorities, many of whom were domestic workers, and many more went unreported. Domestic enslavement and human trafficking of domestic workers on this scale requires a stronger framework of rights as well as more rigorous enforcement. Yet current government proposals threaten to undo recent progress Britain has made in combating slavery and trafficking and to return migrant domestic workers to a form of bonded labour.

The government are planning to abolish the overseas domestic worker visa (ODW) which was introduced in 1998 with cross-party support. It has been praised by the ILO, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants and the Home Affairs select committee of the House of Commons for contributing to the reduction of domestic slavery. The visa granted the right to change employer, which gave power to domestic workers to leave abusive employment relationships and stay in the country as long as they continued to work in the sector. Abolishing it would give a green light to trafficking, make migrants acutely vulnerable to exploitation, and heighten the likelihood of domestic workers being enslaved.

This risk is evident from the experience of migrant domestic workers who work for diplomatic households. They are not covered by the protections of the ODW visa and as a consequence have suffered worse treatment. A survey reveals that diplomatic domestic workers are nearly 20 times more likely to be trafficked as domestic workers in private households. Between 2009 and 2010, at least nine cases were referred to the government involving diplomats and domestic servitude despite the fact that workers in diplomatic households find it especially hard to approach the UK authorities.[1]

The mechanisms to prevent abuse of domestic workers proposed in the government consultation on abolishing the visa are inadequate. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is to be a means of protecting migrant domestic workers from abuse. There are two problems with this. Firstly, the NRM does not have the confidence of vulnerable migrants. In 2009/10, during Operation Tolerance, a pilot initiated by the UK Border Agency to improve understanding of labour trafficking, 102 of the 157 migrant domestic workers identified by the charity Kalayaan chose not to be referred to the NRM. Secondly, the NRM offers absolutely no protection to workers who are in the UK legally but are subject to forms of abuse or servitude. A recent parliamentary question to Damien Green MP found that 450 cases had been referred to the NRM where abuse was found but where trafficking was not conclusively proven. To tackle slavery effectively, the NRM must do more than just help victims of trafficking.

The government argued it did not need to sign the convention because domestic workers already have protected rights. Domestic workers are however excluded from health and safety legislation. Our pamphlet recognises that care must be taken in enforcing the rights of employees in private households to respect the privacy of the home. However, more than a third of domestic workers surveyed in London Metropolitan University’s Turning a Blind Eye report had suffered injuries at work and nearly three-quarters suffered from regular aches and pains due to work. The need for better health and safety protection is clear. The government should extend protections, such as health and safety rights, to people working in private households; the question has long been how to enforce them. Service not Servitude shows there are consensual models of inspection that can enforce rights without compromising the dignity of the household inspected. In Ireland, a voluntary inspection scheme run by the National Employment Rights Authority increased compliance with the law through a focus on education and cooperation, not heavy-handedness. There are already precedents in the UK. The Care Quality Commission (CQC) already inspects care homes which have only one resident; 52 of them in the last three years – local authority inspectors are used to entering private homes. The expertise is there to trial a system similar to the Irish model in the in the UK. Enforcement must be effective for rights to be secured.

The report does not focus solely on the need for government action. Service not Servitude shows how almost anyone can contribute to ending domestic slavery. Businesses, from employment agencies to plumbers and TV installers, can train staff who enter private households to recognise and report abuse. Community institutions from schools to places of worship where migrant domestic workers frequent can do the same. Potential employers from users of MumsNet to diplomats should be advised of all the rights of people who work in the home, visa applicants should be told their rights, and trade unions should be encouraged to recruit domestic workers.

Business secretary Vince Cable told the Liberal Democrat party conference last month: “What I will not do is provide cover for ideological descendants of those who sent children up chimneys.” But we don’t need to look back to Victorian chimneys to find extreme exploitation: it can be found today behind front doors up and down the country, where children and other vulnerable people are put to work without any of the protections from abuse our country claims to offer people in employment. The Department of Business Innovation and Skills which he heads has undermined international protections for domestic workers and turned a blind eye to exploitation in this sector in the UK.

It is time, over 200 years after the abolition to the transatlantic slave trade, to honour Britain’s fight against slavery in the past by ending domestic servitude and the exploitation of vulnerable workers in the present.

Fiona Mactaggart is Labour MP for Slough. Previously a General Secretary of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Fiona served as a Home Office minister from 2003 to 2006.

Mathew Lawrence, previously holder of a Columbia University Alliance fellowship and a Sir Huw Wheldon Scholarship from LSE, is co-author of the report into domestic work, Service not Servitude.


[1] Statistic used with consent from the Museum of London, Freedom From: Modern Slavery in the Capital, August 2011. ^back