Domestic servitude: a 21st century system of violence against women and girls

Speech to RMT Union meeting to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls
25 Nov 2013

Thanks very much for having me here. I’ve very honoured to be here and just wanted to say a few words on just one of the issues that sustains violence against women and girls in this country and in the rest of Europe.

A month or so ago the Guardian ran an expose of the use of forced labour in Qatar to build the infrastructure for the World Cup. At the root of the problem there is what is called the Kafala system, which is a sponsorship system that ties workers to their employers to such an extent that even in the most abusive employment relationships, up to and including forced labour, the workers cannot changes jobs or even go home.

It is a cynical system to facilitate medieval levels of exploitation.

It is also essentially the same system that the UK government has in place for migrant domestic workers to this country.

All slavery is violence. It affects more women than men, though not disproportionately so: as I mentioned the thousands of forced labourers bleeding and thirsting to death in Qatar are mostly men. But domestic slavery and servitude is a sector where women are overwhelmingly enslaved and abused.

And it is a sector were the trafficking of women and girls, and by trafficking I mean specifically the movement of women and girls into systems of forced labour and exploitation, is frequently legal. The UK has its system of domestic workers visas tied to employers, and this de facto legalises the trafficking of people for forced domestic work. It does this by explicitly saying to migrant domestic workers that if they leave the employment of the person to whom their visa is tied, no matter how abusive or exploitative that employer may be, they will be deported. And that places in the hands of unscrupulous employers an enormously powerful threat to hold over the head of any vulnerable worker hoping to improve their own life and that of their family through hard work.

The British Prime Minister David Cameron, to his credit employed a domestic worker who had previously escaped from an abusive employer and he sometimes makes reference to how this gives him an insight into contemporary slavery. But if the same domestic worker today was to escape from an abusive employer, following the changes in regulations regarding migrant domestic workers’ visas brought into being by Mr Cameron’s government, she would probably be deported rather than protected.

The system of tying domestic worker visas to employers is common place across the Gulf states as well as in the UK. As with the construction workers of Qatar this system is in place to facilitate the abuse and enslavement of vulnerable domestic workers. A year or so ago an Indonesian domestic worker was executed in Saudi Arabia without having had either legal representation at her trial or consular support. Referring to this case, one colleague asked me “Imagine for a moment that woman was guilty of whatever capital offence she was accused of. Can you imagine the level of abuse that someone like her, from one of the gentlest communities in the world, must have gone through to drive her to some act of violence”.

Consequent of this Indonesia stopped its nationals from travelling to Saudi for work. Saudi now seeks to source its slaves from East Africa, principally Ethiopia and Kenya, though Ethiopia has just recently also introduced a travel ban for its nationals.

Ensuring decent work for domestic workers is an essential challenge in the wider struggle of ending violence against women and girls. Yet the UK, along with the government of Sudan, refused to support a new international convention on decent work for domestic workers when it was formulated at the ILO a year or so ago: and when you are on the same side as the government of Sudan on a human rights issue, you are probably on the wrong side.

The UK’s failure to support decent work for domestic workers runs contrary not just to its proposed anti-slavery and anti-violence agendas. It also runs contrary to its development and anti-poverty agendas. Across the globe women are struggling for better lives for themselves and their families by travelling the world in search of work, frequently domestic work. The remittances they send are vital not only for the future of their families but for the development of their countries. In the months and years to come the remittances of Filipino domestic workers are likely to be more important than the efforts of foreign aid agencies in the reconstruction of their country following the devastation caused by the typhoon there.

David Cameron must see how vital the work of such domestic workers is to all of us in Europe following his employment of a migrant domestic worker to help him care for his family while he carried on the hectic schedule of leading the British Government. For many other people across Europe such workers provide essential support without which they would also find it difficult to cope.

It’s time to start valuing domestic workers not by mere words but by actions, and this country, and all of Europe can start by removing the systems that facilitate the routinized use of violence against them.

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