The London-based charity Kalayaan is the only one in the country that deals specifically with migrant domestic workers; it saw 356 clients in 2009, and says it is impossible to guess the full extent of the problem. Of those the charity saw last year, 59% said they had not been allowed out of the house they were working in without being supervised by their employer’s family. Many had little or no privacy; 57% didn’t have their own room, and had to sleep in rooms with the children they cared for, or on sofas and floors. A shocking 17% of respondents reported that they had been physically assaulted, and 58% had had their passports kept from them, ensuring they lived in fear of being caught by police without the documents that prove they are in the UK legally. More than half of the new workers who registered with the charity were given no time off at all.
Earlier this year, one migrant domestic worker claimed that her wealthy employers had strip-searched her, slapped her and threatened her family. Yoyoh Binti Salim Udin told an employment tribunal that she tried to take her own life by drinking bleach after being accused of stealing. “I felt incredibly isolated. I did not have my family to support me . . . I drank the acid because I wanted to die,” she wrote in her statement to the court. The respondents, Firas Chamsi Pasha and Lina Chamsi Pasha, deny all her allegations. Their lawyer, Jonathan Goldberg QC, told the tribunal that Udin had informed doctors there were no problems with her employers, had diluted the bleach and was like Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi – a peasant who steals the land and villas of a wealthy lawyer.
A judgment is still awaited in Udin’s case. But Jenny Moss, a community advocate for Kalayaan, says extreme mistreatment is not unheard of. “Employers have done things which to my mind amount to torture,” she says. “It’s not unusual to hear of cases where people have been humiliated, held in a room, or with knives held at their throat.” More prevalent though, she says, are long hours, non-payment or not paying on time, confiscation of passports and the use of threats or lies to keep the women under psychological control.
The dehumanisation of domestic workers is intimately related to the devaluation of domestic and care work (see here for my previous F Word piece on this). The work is seen as lowly in part because of prejudices against the migrant women who do it; those prejudices are in turn reinforced by the fact that these migrant women do work which is assigned a low status.
According to Rosie Cox, author of The Servant Problem, there are more servants in the UK now than there were in Victorian times, because of the growth of childcare and the relatively low cost of employing a cleaner. Yet the rise in numbers has not improved the status of women who work in the home. “Domestic work is utterly undervalued and anyone who can do anything else does,” she says. “Workers can be treated as less than human – as though they are dirty and diseased, which raises massive questions about the way society treats tasks done by women.”
The piece also highlights the striking situation of women paid to provide childcare, and thus facilitate the family lives of others, under conditions and wage terms that are entirely inadequate to support their own family lives:
Campaigners say there must also be a change in the law regarding wages. “We would like the removal of the family worker exemption for the minimum wage,” says Gibbs. At the moment, if an employer successfully argues that a worker is treated as a family member – if they share meals with the family, for instance – they can be exempt from paying the minimum wage. “Employers are able to argue they don’t need to pay the worker a penny,” says Gibbs, “because they treat them so nicely. But it’s very clear workers don’t do this for a cultural exchange. They are just here to send remittances home.”
Anna (not her real name), an energetic 40-year-old, originally from the Philippines, says that implying that women leave their own families for anything less than a fair wage is an insult. “Childcare is work. It’s a big sacrifice. You don’t experience your own children growing up. I remember when I went home I made my daughter fried eggs – I didn’t know she only ever ate boiled eggs. I am their mother, but I am a stranger.” She made the choice because she was desperate to give her children a better life, she says.