Skip to main content

Visas: Foreign Domestic Workers

Volume 746: debated on Thursday 4 July 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the impact on the well-being of foreign domestic workers of the introduction in April 2012 of the one-employer visa regime.

My Lords, the reforms to the route for overseas domestic workers restored the original purpose of the route as a way to accompany an overseas employer visiting the UK, and included measures to minimise the risk of ill treatment. All overseas domestic workers receive written information about their employment rights. The Government have seen no persuasive evidence of any deterioration in the treatment of overseas domestic workers since the April 2012 reforms.

My Lords, the Minister is responsible for safeguarding vulnerable people. Will he therefore personally investigate why, in 24 out of 29 cases, such workers were paid no wage at all, while not being allowed out unescorted, having their passports taken away from them and not even having a room to themselves? Will the Government accept that their safeguards often prove ineffective, since domestics are too frightened to go to the police or employment tribunals? Is it not time to prevent such domestic slavery happening?

I understand the noble Lord’s concern and thank him for asking this Question. The Government are aware of the report from Kalayaan, and my honourable friend Mark Harper, Minister for Immigration, has agreed to meet Kalayaan the Tuesday after next. I have been invited to join that meeting. I understand that the report was based on the 29 individuals on the new visa who sought Kalayaan’s advice in 2012. I have to say that this contrasts with the 156 who went to Kalayaan under the old regime last year and the 300 it would normally get in the preceding years. In turn, that compares with the 15,000 to 16,000 domestic visas issued annually—a figure that has not in fact varied since this new procedure was put in place.

Is the Minister aware that the new visa system, which ties migrant domestic workers to one employer, removes all their protections and deprives them of any resort in terms of challenging, appalling conditions of employment and abuse, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, is in effect a form of modern-day slavery? How will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that such trafficked domestic workers will receive legal representation if they need it, given that, as their visas are limited to six months under proposed legal reforms, they would not pass the residency test of at least one year’s residence in the UK?

I understand the noble Baroness’s concerns, and indeed this is one of the issues that the Minister for Immigration is considering. However, perhaps I may put into perspective what the April 2012 reforms require. The control of the scheme is itself one of the protections in place. Previously there was a five-year period, and a six-month period obviously enables us to discipline that particular application so much better. We require evidence of an existing employer-employee relationship and 12 months of overseas employment before the visa application can be made. We also require that written terms of condition of employment accompany that visa application and are produced with it. Employees are still entitled to the protections in UK employment law, and they are provided with a letter in a number of languages setting out their rights under the law.

My Lords, nobody wants to see the visa system abused. However, I am confident that the Government do not think it is right that anybody working in this country should be made more vulnerable to slavery or physical, sexual or mental abuse, with effectively no power to take action to protect themselves, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. Will the noble Lord consider, in the meeting that he will shortly have with Mark Harper MP, what action the Government will take to ensure that those who are responsible for such crimes will be brought to justice, and not allowed to get away with it by deporting the evidence?

Indeed, anybody who violates the trafficking laws in this country is subject to the full force of the criminal law. Given that individuals have already worked for their employer for 12 months overseas, it is reasonable to assume that there is a normal employer-employee relationship between those individuals.

It is my understanding that there is a great deal of abuse of such people, most often Filipinos, by the embassies of certain nations which we need not mention. What can my noble friend do about that? Embassies claim diplomatic immunity, and they abuse those people, Filipinos in particular, who then essentially escape from the embassies and become illegal immigrants here. What can we do to help them?

We are bound by the Vienna convention in terms of the employment of staff at embassies, so the extension of British employment law in that regard is not possible. I think that this Question focuses, legitimately, on those who come here under the new six-month visitor domestic service agreements, which is a different arrangement.

My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking. One of the great problems is that if these women who have been trafficked—and I suspect that there is a substantial minority about whom we do not know—cannot get another job, they will be sent home and may be re-trafficked. The Government need to recognise that this is a real problem.

I have tried to make it clear that these people are not casually trafficked. They must be in the employment of the employer for 12 months before they come to this country. It is designed for people accompanying overseas visitors, who I think this country seeks to encourage. However, I do not think that the scenario that the noble and learned Baroness points out actually exists. There is the national referral mechanism. Any information on trafficking represents a criminal offence, and we would not hesitate to prosecute.

My Lords, will the Minister undertake at his meeting next week to reconsider his statement that there is security in knowing that people have been in employment for 12 months? The conditions in which they may have been in employment in some other countries may be equally bad.

I give that undertaking, and course I am aware of what the noble Baroness is suggesting. However, this country’s power to deal with such matters is limited to their treatment here in the UK.