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"The visa protected workers from servitude and slavery"
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"The visa protected workers from servitude and slavery"

Aishah NamukasaThe UK government is backsliding on the human rights of migrant domestic workers with its proposed changes to visa rules, claims Aishah Namukasa, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Uganda now living in Germany.

Women are engaged in all sorts of employment today to make ends meet and sustain their families. These women include those engaged in the domestic sector, who go about their business seemingly invisible as they work within private households.

Some of their duties include cleaning, caring for children or the elderly, and cooking. With these workers in place, other women (and men) are able to go off to work or school – secure in the knowledge that there is someone available to care for the home.

In the UK, there are many migrant women working as domestic workers for both migrant and British families. Some of these workers moved to the UK under a visa specifically catering for their employment. This visa protected domestic workers from servitude and slavery, as they could change employers in case of abuse, which they could not do in the past.

Following a backlash at what is termed by the right-wing media as an ‘influx’ of migrants, the UK government decided to reduce the numbers coming into the country. Specifically, it decided to curb low skilled migration including those migrating to perform domestic work.

In 2011, the Home Office – the interior ministry –  released controversial plans to do away with or substantially reform the visa for overseas domestic workers working in private households (see this story on the BBC News website  and this advice on the Home Office site).

The Home Office is getting rid of the current protections for migrant domestic workers by removing the visa under which they currently work. In place since 1998, this visa offered great protection within the workplace (usually private homes), as it permitted migrant domestic workers to change employers in case of exploitation.

The UK’s removal of the visa for overseas domestic workers is unsurprising in some respects, since it was one of only eight countries to abstain from voting for the C189 Domestic Workers Convention 2011. It argued that its national laws were sufficient in protecting domestic workers and that it would not be in position to ratify the Convention.

But in March 2012, the government went even further by deciding that low skilled workers, including overseas domestic workers, should not have a right to change employers nor seek settlement, and changed its immigration laws and policies, accordingly.

It argued that the ability of overseas domestic workers to settle is out of step with the commitment to increase numbers leaving the UK. It adds further that legislative changes are required to effect policy changes. See this advice again from the Home Office.

This ironic action ‘meant to protect overseas domestic workers and assist them return home’ is a blow to all parties advocating for more rights for domestic workers and women generally. Organisations such as Migrants’ Rights Network and Kalayaan are now campaigning to compel the government to reconsider this position.

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Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. All articles are published in a spirit of improving dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?

To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please click here.

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