Theresa May leaves legacy of cruelty for domestic workers

May’s heartless policies will go on tormenting migrant domestic workers long after she steps down as MP
Theresa May's announcement of stepping down sparked tributes, but her legacy includes altering the overseas domestic workers visa, which tied workers to abusive employers, perpetuating exploitation and vulnerability. Despite her departure, the impact of her policies continues to oppress migrant workers, leaving a lasting mark on their lives.

Earlier this month, Theresa May, former home secretary and prime minister, announced that she would stand down as MP at the next general election. This news was met with video compilations of career highs and lows – Brexit, the 2017 snap election, and awkward dancing – and tributes praising her “decency, integrity” and “passionate campaigning for vital causes”.

That’s not how I will remember her. To me and many others in migrant communities and the migrants’ rights sector, she will be remembered for four acts that demonstrated her fundamental lack of humanity.

She was the home secretary who failed the Windrush generation, who didn't meet the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, who created the hostile environment for migrants, and who changed the overseas domestic workers visa to tie workers to their employers. All cruel, all the opposite of “decency”. And the last two made countless migrants vulnerable to exploitation, in direct contradiction to May’s professed passion for ending modern slavery.

When it came to migrants in the UK, she was heartless and deserves to be remembered as such.

The overseas domestic worker visa

The ODW visa, created in 1998 after years of campaigning by domestic workers, allowed workers who had been brought to the UK to switch employers, settle, and apply for their family and dependents to settle in the UK with them.

But in April 2012, then-home secretary May altered the rules, making it more difficult for workers to escape abusive employers. Domestic workers could still technically switch to a new employer if they left an exploitative employer – but they could still only work for as long as their visa is valid (a maximum of 6 months). The visa is not renewable and domestic workers cannot switch to a different form of leave to remain in the UK while here – even if they are escaping abuse.

Combined, these rule changes made it very difficult for employees to escape abuse without being threatened with removal if they overstayed their visa. Few employers will hire a domestic worker midway through a six-month visa, as they have to register these changes with the Home Office to sponsor the worker, which is too complicated for most employers, especially for such a short period of time. But domestic workers cannot be without an employer and remain legally in the UK.

This is what it means to be tied, and the result has been that migrant domestic workers can’t escape the exploitation and abuse because they cannot afford the consequences of protecting themselves, or might not know what options for protection they have.

This is not a theoretical problem. As a support worker, I have met many migrant domestic workers who have experienced severe exploitation at the hands of their employers. They have travelled here without access to their passports or without knowing their final destination. And, once in the UK, they have worked without days off, food, or pay. Many endured physical, psychological, and even sexual abuse.

Under the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, ironically also designed by May, these individuals qualify as victims of human trafficking and/or modern-day slavery. Some have been declared as such by the UK government. And by tying domestic workers’ visas to their employers, May made it possible for that exploitation to happen. She was told of the consequences and did it anyway.

Exploitation, made in the UK

The difference between workers who arrived pre-2012 and post-2012 is night and day.

In a 2010 survey, Kalayaan, a charity that specialises in supporting migrant domestic workers, found that 54% of their clients reported psychological abuse and 67% had no day off. In 2013, 74% of workers registered with Kalayaan reported psychological abuse and 100% of them reported not having any time off.

I saw this difference myself through my casework and organising in the community.

The workers who had arrived before 2012 now have indefinite leave to remain, sometimes even British citizenship. The children they had left behind, many of them in the Philippines, have joined them in the UK. But for the women who had arrived after 2012, the story is very different.

Some have lived in the UK for years without leave to remain, because they ran away from the abusive employer who brought them to London and were prevented by UK policy from maintaining their legal status. They now rely on cash-in-hand jobs, with working conditions not dissimilar to the ones they first fled, and without any recourse to protection.

The change in visa created such a shock in the Filipino migrant community – which makes up a large proportion of migrant domestic workers in the UK – that a group of workers set up the Filipino Domestic Workers Association-UK (FDWA-UK) in 2013. They joined a short list of pre-existing organisations like Kalayaan, Kanlungan, and the Voice of Domestic Workers in fighting for migrant domestic workers’ rights.

For two years, I worked at Kanlungan, a Filipino migrant community organisation, as a support worker and campaigner for undocumented migrants. I saw how the British immigration system, and specifically the ODW visa, traumatised the women I supported. They went from being trapped by an abusive employer to being trapped in an abusive immigration system that kept them destitute by denying them the right to work, to settle, or to proper support.

Further cruelty on the horizon

The 2012 ODW visa left migrant domestic workers isolated and vulnerable to exploitation by design. It is a cruel, inhumane visa that foreshadowed the policy direction of all that came after it: the hostile environment, the Nationality and Borders Act, the Illegal Migration Act, and the Safety of Rwanda Bill.

The visa change also opened the gates to other kinds of short term and restricted visas, such as the seasonal agricultural worker visa and the health and social care visa. These have created similarly dangerous conditions for workers in those sectors as well.

Migrant workers are treated like dispensable commodities, imported to fulfil labour our society does not value. They are allowed no right to a private or family life, no right to a future in the country in which they work, no right even to protection. This is May’s legacy.

May might step down as MP, but the policy structure she built will continue its oppressive course. I still remember the women’s faces when they realised they had no viable option to remain in the UK. I still remember their tears, the hours of police interviews, the trips to the Philippine Embassy, the endless, desperate phone calls to solicitors and charities. Many of the women stayed in the end. They stayed invisible inside private houses across the UK, struggling to survive May’s “decency”.

Francesca Humi is the coordinator for Crossborder Forum, a network of civil societies working across the UK, France and Belgium, hosted by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. She is a former Advocacy and Campaigns Officer at Kanlungan Filipino Consortium, a charity working to empower Filipino, East, and Southeast Asian migrants..

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