How Pinays are fighting for better rights in UK

by Patrick Camara Ropeta, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

LONDON – The harrowing stories of abused Filipino domestic workers came to light at a recent conference in London, where Filipino activists led a discussion on vulnerable women in Britain and the controversial debate on UK immigration policies.

Speaking to an international crowd at Gender Matters Too: Perspectives on Women’s Resistance, Jamima Fagta Balageo from Kanlungan, an alliance of UK-based Filipino organisations helping troubled migrants, pleaded a case against the current UK visa for domestic workers, which came into effect nearly two years ago.

According to Balageo, a long-time campaigner of migrant rights in the UK, the new visa system is a form of “modern slavery,” particularly with migrant domestic workers being “tied” to their employers.

This, she argues, facilitates exploitation and makes it difficult for victims to escape the cycle of abuse.

“Slavery exists as far as Filipino migrant domestic workers are concerned,” she told ABS-CBN Europe. “They’re experiences and how they are being treated is a form of slavery.”

In the new visa system introduced in April 2012, migrant domestic workers entering Britain are no longer allowed to change their employer, which have been previously available to them as a concession since 1998, following years of relentless campaigning from migrant groups in the 1990s.

“Filipinos were active before in advocating these rights,” Balageo pointed out. “They were pioneers in the fight for rights in the UK, where they fought for 10 years to obtain the concession. The problem is that the current British government no longer recognises the advocacy we have done.”

Dara Bascara, a Filipino philosopher from Birkbeck University of London who was also speaking at the event, added that the concession is a “small thing” in the context of wider immigration levels in Britain, which is often used as an argument to support stricter visa regulations.

“The main thing here is the tied visa,” she explained. “If they’re being abused, they need to have some sort of exit route. Otherwise, right now, if you are a Filipino domestic worker and you suffer abuse, you basically either have to endure it, or become undocumented.”

The UK government denies any wrongdoing. In a statement to ABS-CBN Europe, a spokesperson from the Home Office, the department responsible for immigration matters, explained how the domestic workers visa was originally intended as a “temporary route”.

“We changed the rules to return the route to its original purpose – a temporary route to allow domestic workers to accompany their existing overseas employers for up to six months on a short term visit to the UK,” the statement said.

It also stated that overseas domestic workers entering the UK have “access to protections under UK law,” and that they have “a range of options” available to them should they find themselves in vulnerable situations, including police assistance and access to the National Referral Mechanism for cases of trafficking.

The Home Office also reassures migrant domestic workers that the process of obtaining the new visa has been designed to ensure their safety and protection even from the point of entry.

“Rather than increase the risk of abuse,” the statement continued, “the measure was designed to stop abusive relationships between employers and their domestic workers being imported into the UK. Employers must prove they have a positive relationship with their member of staff, and any person known to have previously abused a worker will not be able to bring employees to the UK.”

New cases of abuse since 2012

Despite measures in place, however, human rights campaigners argue that abuse towards migrant domestic workers continue to occur in the UK, which is why they continue to demand for better protection in this sector.

According to Kalayaan, a migrant support group based in London, there are approximately 300 new cases of reported abuse towards migrant domestic workers on average each year.

But in the period immediately after the introduction of the new visa, between 2012 and 2013, the group registered only 198 new cases, significantly lower than the average. This, they believe, is an effect of stricter entry regulations, as well as the possibility that some victims are either unable to escape from their employers, or have instead chosen to become undocumented due to restrictions from the tied visa.

Nevertheless, in the year ending in March 2013, Kalayaan recorded 85 cases of domestic workers without any day off, 83 were unable to go out of the house, 69 were paid below £50 per week, 88 employers were hiding passport of employees, and 17 reported cases of physical abuse. A number of reports also cited other forms of maltreatment, from limited food and provision, to psychological abuse.

The women behind the numbers

At the conference, held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the Bloomsbury district of central London, Balageo shared the story of Cora, one of the migrant domestic workers who suffered abuse from her employers.

According to Balageo, Cora – not her real name – arrived in the UK in 2012 under the new visa. And yet, she claimed, Cora was still exploited by her employers who took her to England after working for them in Qatar since 2008.

In both countries, Balageo continued, Cora was maltreated in different ways, from lack of time off and unreasonably long working hours, to movement restrictions and verbal abuse.

The domestic worker, who is only in her early 20s and comes from a poor background in the Philippines, later tried to commit suicide out of desperation from her situation. It was then, at the hospital where she was treated for overdose, that she was able to escape after sharing her experiences to the nurses who looked after her. She is now under the care of Kalayaan and the Filipino Domestic Workers Association (FDWA), a social support group initiated by domestic workers themselves.

A network of support

For Cielo Tilan, vice president and founding member of FDWA, Cora’s journey is an all too familiar story to many migrant domestic workers. Yet despite this, she noted a disappointing lack of support from the wider community, even from fellow UK-based Filipinos who no longer seem interested in their causes.

“Support is very important to those in need, but most Filipinos who are settled in the UK are content with their lives. They don’t want to get involved with us,” she observed.

“I’m in a good situation myself: I have good work as a domestic worker and I don’t have much stress in life. But when I see and hear stories about the struggles of some new Filipinos coming into the UK, I feel like I need to do something to help. These people have nowhere to go and no one to turn to.”

The veteran domestic worker, who has been in the UK for over a decade, believes it is the “responsibility” of those who “made it” to look after those who are still making their way.

“I wanted to find others like me,” she explained, “and for us to continue the campaign for our rights. It’s our responsibility to fight for our rights. And the more of us speak out, the more we will be heard.”

Basic rights for domestic labor

In addition to providing a support network for vulnerable migrants, FDWA is also campaigning for the ratification of the United Nation’s ILO Convention 189, something that Balageo, Bascara and Kalayaan are also promoting.

Known as The Domestic Worker Convention, it outlines basic rights for domestic workers around the world, from setting up minimum wage and recognising domestic labour as real work, to ensuring reasonable working conditions and providing necessary time off.

But since its introduction in September 2013, only 11 countries have ratified it thus far, including Ecuador, Bolivia, Italy, Germany, South Africa, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, and even The Philippines.

The UK government itself is yet to ratify the convention, and has previously told ABS-CBN Europe that it has no plans of doing so in the future, according to a statement from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which handles employment matters.

“The UK Government supports the principles in ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers,” the statement said.

“We hope they can help to raise standards and prevent abuses worldwide. However, ratifying ILO Convention 189 would extend criminal health and safety law, including inspections, to private households employing domestic workers, which we consider to be neither proportionate nor practical.”

The fight continues

With a stricter domestic worker visa and the absence of ILO Convention 189, human rights campaigners like Bascara, Balageo and Tilan will continue to raise awareness of the plight of migrant domestic workers in the UK, alongside organisations like Kalayaan, Kanlungan, FDWA, Justice for Domestic Workers, and Human Rights Watch.

And although they still have a long way before they can achieve their goals, if at all, their efforts are nevertheless starting to be heard in certain quarters after years of relentless campaigning.

“I definitely learnt that the changes in the immigration bill made a huge impact,” said Rosie Hayes, organiser of Gender Matters Too, who invited Bascara and Balageo to speak at the event.

“By taking away the small concession made by the UK government – to allow domestic workers to change their employers – they have left vulnerable workers in a situation where they can be easily exploited.”

She also observed that migrant women, from domestic workers to refugees and asylum seekers, are “neglected on the whole” by mainstream society, adding that it is the “role of women” to raise awareness of such issues.

It is a role that Bascara and Balageo take seriously, both of whom often write or speak publicly about the rights of migrants and women. “The more organisations and individuals speak out about basic human rights,” Balageo concluded, “the more we can involve and engage the wider community.”

There are more than 250,000 Filipinos in the UK, according to latest figures from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, excluding those who are undocumented. Each year, approximately 60,000 Filipinos leave the Philippines to work abroad, 36,000 of those are women, and many of whom end up in domestic labour.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there 53 million domestic workers worldwide, and 83% of those are women.