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Call for Ratification of ILO Domestic Workers Convention

Issue date

Joint Letter, please reply to Kate Willingham, Anti-Slavery International

Thomas Clarkson House, Broomgrove Road, London, SW9 9TL

Rt. Hon Vince Cable MP

Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

1 Victoria Street



12 December 2012

Dear Minister

Today, 12 December 2012, is being marked globally as a day of action for ratification of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No.189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which has now entered into force following its formal adoption by four countries. On this occasion, we urge you and your colleagues to promote and protect the rights of domestic workers by ratifying the Convention and its accompanying Recommendation, as well as restoring essential protections for migrant domestic workers in the UK.

Convention No.189 is a ground breaking treaty which establishes the first global standards for the estimated 50 to 100 million domestic workers worldwide, the vast majority of whom are women and girls, who clean, cook and care for children and the elderly in private households. Despite their important contributions to the global economy, domestic workers are vulnerable to a wide range of abuses. These include excessive hours of work with no rest, non-payment of wages, forced confinement, physical and sexual abuse, forced labour and trafficking. Children - who make up nearly 30 percent of domestic workers globally - and migrant domestic workers are often the most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Convention No.189 provides desperately needed and long overdue protections, including special protections for child domestic workers and migrant domestic workers.

Despite this, the Government has publically stated in an explanatory memorandum laid before Parliament on 27th of April 2012 that whilst the UK supports the principles behind the Domestic Workers Convention, it does not think that ratification of the Convention is appropriate for the UK because of the burdens that implementing the health and safety provisions would impose on UK business and citizens.

We urge the Government to reconsider this position. Domestic work is work. As in other sectors, workers are exposed to a number of health hazards, including burns and ergonomic risks. Whilst the privacy of the home should be preserved, it should also be seen as an employer's responsibility to ensure that employees do not work in conditions that put their health and safety at risk. Furthermore, Convention No.189 in fact offers a considerable degree of flexibility. Most of its provisions are subject to conformity with national laws, regulations and practices, including article 10 on working conditions and article 13 on health and safety. A number of articles specify that their implementation should be progressive, including article 13 on health and safety. Finally, regulations should be agreed through tripartite negotiations between workers, employers and government.

Ratification of Convention No.189 will help protect domestic workers worldwide from abuse and exploitation. We would urge the Government to send a strong message that it takes seriously the protection of domestic workers, including the most vulnerable - children and migrants.

In addition, we would like to take this opportunity to state our concerns about the recent changes to the Overseas Domestic Worker visa, which mean that migrant domestic workers are restricted to a 6 month non-renewable visa and no longer have the right to change employer, bring dependents, or apply for settlement. We believe that these changes leave migrant domestic workers vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, forced labour, and trafficking. These concerns have been previously raised with your department (joint letter to Norman Lamb MP, 16 June 2012, copy enclosed).

In response to these concerns, the Government referred to a number of additional protection measures put in place to protect migrant domestic workers. However, the majority of these measures are neither new nor will they be effective. Checking that migrant domestic workers have been employed for 12 months prior to entry by their employer is a measure that has been in place since 1990. It did not, and will not, guarantee that it is not an abusive employment relationship. Requiring the employer and domestic worker to sign a contract before entry clearance is issued similarly will not ensure that the employment relationship is free from exploitation. In any case, the contract will be meaningless if domestic workers have no way of enforcing it because they cannot change employer and would lose their right to work and stay in the UK as soon as they flee an abusive employer. The letter providing translated information to domestic workers about their rights in the UK, which was shown to Kalayaan by the UK Border Agency (UKBA), is in reality mostly a statement of the restrictions of the domestic worker's visa. It does not state what employment protections exist in the UK and therefore domestic workers are unlikely to know that they are entitled to the National Minimum Wage and statutory sick pay. Migrant domestic workers will no longer be able to secure compensation through employment tribunals as they will not have permission to remain in the UK to take the cases and will not be able to work to support themselves whilst they do.

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) offers no protection to migrant domestic workers who are subjected to abuse, exploitation or forced labour but have not been trafficked. Even in cases of trafficked migrant domestic workers, there are concerns about the ability of the NRM to consistently identify and assist trafficked people. The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, which monitors the UK Government's implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, concluded that the NRM is flawed; operated by staff who have received minimal training, putting more emphasis on the immigration status of the presumed trafficked person than the alleged crime against them, and using flawed legal guidance relating to who should be identified as a trafficked person.

Furthermore, these protection measures have not been applied in practice. As of July 2012, Kalayaan had registered 17 domestic workers who have fled employers after having been brought to the UK on the new restricted visas. In not one of these cases was the domestic worker provided with an information letter about her rights. In one case, a contract that was submitted for a domestic worker's entry clearance application, and approved by UKBA, stated that she would be working full time and paid the equivalent of £350 per month, which is less than half the National Minimum wage. In reality, the domestic worker was made to work 16 hours a day, 6 days a week, meaning that her salary was actually the equivalent of 80 pence per hour. In another a domestic worker was interviewed at the UK immigration desk in front of her employers, she disclosed she would be paid a salary equivalent to less than 35 pence per hour. The UKBA officials told the employers that they hoped they would treat her better in the UK and then allowed them to enter.

The right to change employer is a fundamental safeguard. With no other option, many migrant domestic workers will continue to suffer abuse and exploitation rather than lose their livelihood, accommodation and permission to stay in the UK. Abuse and exploitation is likely to increase as unscrupulous employers know that there will be no realistic sanction for their actions, and that the threats that they make about illegality, detention and deportation will be enforced. In a report on domestic servitude (September 2010, A/HRC/15/20), the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery identified the tying of visas to a particular employer as a factor creating an extreme dependency on an employer, making the migrant domestic worker easy to exploit. The practice of tying visas to a particular employer has been identified by anti-trafficking experts, such as the OSCE Special Representative on Trafficking, as one of the factors contributing to trafficking.

We urge the Government to reconsider its position and take positive action to promote and protect the rights of domestic workers by signing and ratifying the Convention and its accompanying Recommendation. We also urge the Government to restore essential protections for migrant domestic workers in the UK including the right to change employer, renew their visa and apply for settlement.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Whitehouse, Chair, Anti-Slavery International

Francesca Cooney, Chair, Kalayaan

Marissa Begonia, Chair, Justice for Domestic Workers

Brendan Barber, General Secretary, Trade Union Congress

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