It was one o'clock in the morning, and raining, when Frances's employer threw her out in the street, angry that she had asked for a day off. "She said that I should leave straight away," Frances says quietly. "She threw all my things into the road, but kept my passport, bank card and national insurance card."
Frances is a painfully shy, slim young woman, who originally came to the UK from Africa as a domestic worker – her interpreter has to strain to hear her soft voice as she explains why she was too frightened to go to the police. "My employer told me that if I said anything she would tell people I beat the children. I was very scared and did not know what to do." Frances had been working from 7am to 1am, seven days a week, for a wage of just £250 a month, money that was desperately needed to educate her two siblings back home. Terrified and alone, all she could do after being thrown out of the house was to sit in the street, waiting for her employer to change her mind.
Campaigners say Frances's story is not unusual; hundreds of women arrive in the UK each year to clean homes, cook and care for children, only to be turned into virtual slaves. The story of one domestic worker, Mende Nazer, has inspired a Channel 4 drama, which will be shown this month. I Am Slave follows Malia, a young girl trafficked from Sudan to the UK, where her rich employers refuse to allow her to leave the house and pay her nothing. Desperate to escape, she has to put her trust in a passing stranger to help her get away.
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.
Migrant domestic workers are in a uniquely vulnerable position. Thousands of miles from home, "they are dependent on one employer for their accommodation, work and immigration status," says Moss, "and because they are isolated in a private house they don't meet anyone." They often come from impoverished backgrounds with little education, and are encouraged to fear the police. "Many can't leave because they are told the police will put them in jail or rape them."
Sarah (not her real name), is a domestic worker in her 30s, who comes from a poor coastal family in Indonesia. She is divorced and had to spend much of her 20s working in private homes overseas to support her daughter, who is now 13. In 2008, Sarah was offered work in a diplomatic household in the UK. She says she was promised $1,000 a month – an impressive amount, she thought. "I wanted to work," she says, "because I want my daughter to be able to go to school."
When she arrived in June, Sarah says she was expected to work from 7.30am to 11pm, and be "on call" whenever her employer required. She was not allowed to leave the house, which had CCTV cameras on the doors. "I felt really angry and upset. I asked my friend to ask [if I could go out], and she was told that I could not leave. I felt scared. There were security guards on the door and I was scared of them too." Sarah says she was actually paid just £75 a month, and was not helped to send her money home. When she discovered her employers were planning to move abroad and take her with them, she escaped – without her passport and visa, which they had kept.
Emily Gibbs, a lawyer from the North Kensington Law Centre, which is currently looking after 40 cases involving domestic workers' immigration status and employment abuses, says some women are left with no money at all while they are working. And, in Sarah's case, it is unlikely she will ever be paid. Kalayaan requested her travel and identity documents from her employers only to discover she was brought in on a diplomatic domestic worker visa, which prohibits her from changing employer. And as her employers have diplomatic immunity it would be difficult to take them to a tribunal. Sarah's immigration status is also now problematic – by the time she got her passport and visa back, the visa had expired.
Gibbs says women such as Sarah must be allowed to change employer, and Kalayaan is currently campaigning to keep the migrant domestic workers visa, which would allow women the chance to find work with other employers in the UK. 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.
The problem is international; in 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that a domestic worker was dying every week in Lebanon from suicide or falls from high buildings while trying to escape their employers, and in Hong Kong and the Middle East the abusive treatment of women who work in private homes is rife. Yet according to Moss, "it's not just an imported problem – it's not just foreigners who treat people like this in their own country and then come over here and do it. There are a lot of British people who do this here too. Many are expats who have lived in places where it's normal to have domestic workers."
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."
Anna arrived in the UK with a family she had been working for in Hong Kong, having agreed a salary of £700 a month, from which her employers would deduct national insurance and accommodation costs. "I was left with £300 a month," she says, "and for that I worked from 6am to 10pm, six days a week." She had paid an agency in Hong Kong to secure her job, which meant that she was trapped. "I couldn't fight back because my family is in trouble if I don't pay the bank loan – the bank will go after them. So I had to put up with this for eight months." This too, is far from unusual, says Moss. "Some women have taken out debts to migrate. Lots of migrant workers are placed by agencies in places like Saudi Arabia. They might have borrowed off relatives, or less friendly people, in order to do this."
Eventually, Anna ran away – slipping out early in the morning – and she now helps run Justice for Domestic Workers, an informal union. Here the women chat, take classes, or just sleep; it's here that I meet Frances, who was able to reach Kalayaan after escaping her employer. "We help and support one another," says Anna. "When someone escapes from abusive employers we protect them and give them clothes, and food, help them rebuild their lives. We don't have funds, just our own money from our wages."
The charity Anti Slavery UK is currently campaigning for an International Labour Organisation convention, which would recognise the work of migrant domestic workers and bring their rights in line with other workers. Anna was a delegate to the recent ILO conference and is clear about society's view of domestic workers. "Most people don't treat you like a human being," she says, "they look down on you. But I know that I am a hero".
For more information see kalayaan.org.uk, antislavery.org or contact email@example.com