Why is Modern Slavery important?
Centuries after the slave trade was abolished in Britain, the scandal of modern day slavery continues. Many migrant workers are subjected to slave-like conditions, with others profiting from their exploitation.
The Modern Slavery Act contains important safeguards for victims and helps the Government fulfil its human rights obligations. But gaps in protection remain – particularly for overseas domestic workers.
Before 2012, visas issued for domestic workers allowed them to change their employer once in the UK – enabling them to escape situations of abuse.
However, visa arrangements introduced by this Government in 2012 have tied workers to potentially abusive employers.
Unsurprisingly, exploitation of domestic workers has since increased – precisely as the Government was warned it would.
Kalayaan’s evidence shows that twice as many domestic workers on the tied Visa are now reporting physical abuse. They also report that workers who do escape abuse are now liable to return to it, or live in the UK undocumented and further exploited, rather than risk being returned.
The Modern Slavery Bill was a huge opportunity to put this right. Encouragingly, the House of Lords voted in favour of an amendment to the Bill that would again allow vulnerable domestic workers to escape abusive employers.
But the Government was unpersuaded, and Ministers secured a feeble alternative amendment in the House of Commons that, despite another fight in the Upper House, has now become law.
The battle was lost - but the war is far from over. We thank those courageous voices inside and outside of Parliament who campaigned with us: charity Kalayaan, who work tirelessly to protect and support domestic workers; Justice for Domestic Workers, whose members showed immense bravery in sharing their stories; Lord Hylton, who, with the full machinery of Government against him, refused to give up; and all of our members and supporters who signed our petition and emailed their MPs.
The Government has now committed to review the tied visa and a report is expected in July. We will continue to deliver our message in unequivocal terms: while there may be little we can do to prevent slavery and exploitation in other parts of the world, we can and must say “not on our soil”.
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Tell me more about Modern Slavery
Our Human Rights Act is at the centre of efforts to end slavery. Article 4 requires the Government to protect people from the trade in human misery, and support victims. Slavery has no place in our society – that’s why Article 4 is one of the Act’s few “absolute” rights.
The Modern Slavery Act demonstrates the Government’s desire to go further in fulfilling such human rights obligations. But the 2012 policy change, and the latest feeble amendment which has now become law, seriously undermine such admirable intentions.
The previous visa for overseas domestic workers was rightly described by Parliament’s influential cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee as “the single most important issue in preventing the forced labour and trafficking of such workers”.
And yet the Home Office is now clinging to the new tied visa regime – introduced as part of the Coalition’s efforts to meet a self-imposed immigration cap – despite the clear impact it’s had on the treatment of domestic workers.
Evidence, compiled by Kayalaan over the past two years, shows:
- 16 per cent of entrants present on tied Visas report physical abuse, compared with just 8 per cent of those subject to the pre-2012 Visa;
- 71 per cent of those now tied to employers report never being allowed to leave the house unsupervised, as opposed to 43 per cent of those on the original Visa;
- 60 per cent of tied Visa migrants were paid less than £50 per week, compared with 36 per cent under the old regime;
- 69 per cent of those on the new Visa were assessed to be victims of trafficking, as opposed to 26 per cent of those not tied to employers.
These statistics are shocking, but not surprising. Such tied Visas are well-known in regimes with shameful records on human rights – and women’s rights in particular.
Despite such overwhelming figures, and concerns expressed across Parliament and in civil society, the Government could not be persuaded.
What more evidence is needed?
As the Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill recognised, the 2012 policy only “strengthened the hand of the slave master against the victim.”