Elizabeth Canuday got away on the last Sunday of August 2016. Having been asked to pack the belongings of her Saudi employer’s family after a stay in London, Canuday — not her real name — took the bags to the lobby of the serviced apartment complex in prosperous South Kensington.
Then the domestic worker from Mindanao in the southern Philippines ended two years of overwork, underpayment and underfeeding by slipping through a throng of people and into the street. As she headed between the elegant Victorian apartment blocks of Harrington Road, she asked for God’s help.
“As I’m walking, I’m praying, ‘Lord, bring me to your people,’” Canuday recalls.
Her prayer was answered. After a little more than two miles, Canuday, a slight, round-faced woman who is now 50, heard Filipino religious music coming from a west London church. When she followed it, she found herself at a service being conducted in Tagalog, the country’s most widely spoken language.
Members of the congregation sat her down, gave her coffee and food and offered reassurance. Today, Canuday remembers the event as an act of divine providence. “God took me to beside people who took care of me,” she says. “They said, ‘Don’t worry; don’t worry — relax.’”
Canuday’s reception at St John’s, Notting Hill — a prominent Gothic-revival building that houses London’s only Tagalog-language Church of England congregation — represented a rare nugget of good fortune for an overseas worker fleeing an abusive employer in the UK.
In theory, the maids, housekeepers, nurses, cooks and other domestic staff of visiting overseas families enjoy the same legal protections as any other employee in Britain. In reality, that protection seldom reaches behind the doors of the town houses, five-star hotel rooms and country estates favoured by the employers who choose to travel with their domestic servants to the UK.
The result, according to multiple workers and people who seek to help them, is that some of the most respectable addresses in the UK — a country that proclaims itself at the forefront of the fight against worldwide labour abuse — conceal labour practices that are the very opposite.
Marissa Begonia, a founding member of The Voice of Domestic Workers, a group that supports abused staff, testifies from long experience that some of the complaints she hears are as serious as rape, beatings or starvation.
Originally from Manila in the Philippines, she suffered sexual harassment when working as a maid in Hong Kong. She lists other cruelties that are so common they are virtually routine. “It’s the unpaid wages, no day off, very long hours of work and no rest, no food,” she says.
Begonia, 50, arranges to meet by the vast memorial to Prince Albert in Kensington Gardens, at the western end of Hyde Park in central London. She and the group’s volunteers often come to the gardens on summer evenings and Sunday afternoons, looking for signs that, among the scores of nannies and carers accompanying their employers’ children or aged parents, there might be some working under duress. Begonia describes past efforts to help such workers.
“We gave out cards in the park with my number on it and the writing in different languages saying, ‘We’re here to help.’ Some of them would call us.”
The concentration of the workers’ stories of abuse and escape in Kensington and nearby parts of inner west London make it hard to look at the area’s neat red-brick blocks of luxury flats and ranks of white, stuccoed town houses without wondering what lurks behind any given door.
The privations suffered by abused workers are all too familiar to Canuday. She recalls how she was faint with hunger when she fled three and a half years ago.
But it is when she talks about lacking the dignity of a decent place to sleep during her two-week stay in Kensington that she bursts into tears. “This air conditioning was right next to me,” she remembers. “I felt too much, too much cold. I went to the toilet because in the toilet there was a heater.”
Lily Baloran, 31, from Manila, escaped a serviced apartment off Kensington High Street in 2014 when she worked out how to unlock her employer’s door. She subsequently spent two years living undocumented in London, fearing her employer would seek her out.
Baloran — not her real name — had taken the job in Dubai in 2013, having suffered a deeply troubled childhood in the Philippines and marriage to an alcoholic. But she says her employer gave her too little food, missed several months’ pay and deprived her of sleep. “I didn’t know what to do. I was desperate.”
Though she has now been able to satisfy the UK authorities she qualifies for refugee status, which offers applicants five years’ leave to remain in the UK, her experience has left her feeling profoundly traumatised. “I think I’m still recovering,” she says.
More than three-quarters of the 20,000 people annually granted Overseas Domestic Workers’ visas to come to the UK with an employer arrive from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf Arab countries. Some visas are also issued in other countries, including India, Nigeria and Lebanon. About half those issued visas are women from the Philippines.
The London embassies of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE insist they have worked hard to offer better protection to people such as Canuday and those that Begonia seeks out in Kensington Gardens.
The embassy of the UAE, which includes the emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, says that in 2017 it implemented “broad measures in support of overseas domestic workers”. This made it easier for them to change employers, guaranteed them paid leave and offered official adjudication in any dispute.
Saudi Arabia’s embassy gives a long list of the rights it guarantees overseas domestic workers, including at least one day off weekly, paid leave in their home country after two years and the right to consult with their homeland’s embassy.
The UK’s Home Office paints a similarly optimistic picture. During Theresa May’s time as home secretary between 2010 and 2016, the department made it a priority to act against the severest forms of labour abuse, known as modern slavery. It regards the Modern Slavery Act of 2015 as a world-leading example of how to tackle the problem.
Asked about the experiences of Canuday and other workers, the department points to a change it made in 2016 as evidence of its determination to help them. This extended the maximum length of time that workers found to have been victims of modern slavery could stay in the UK after such a decision from six months to two years.
“We are committed to protecting migrant domestic workers from abuse and exploitation,” says the Home Office.
Yet the story of Dee Wen, 38, illuminates why those working most closely with abused domestic workers fear that the UK authorities are not only failing to improve the workers’ conditions but contributing to their deterioration.
Wen, who is from Legazpi City, 500km south of Manila, was speaking last October at one of the regular Sunday meetings organised by The Voice of Domestic Workers. In the brightly lit Cubitt Gallery, a modern art space in Islington, she recounted how her employer had brought her to York from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and was paying her less than the minimum wage and forcing her to work excessive hours. She had no access to money in the UK.
After a concerned person contacted them in November 2018, North Yorkshire Police rescued Wen from her employer and applied for her to enter a Home Office body known as the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).
This adjudicates whether people have been victims of modern slavery. Because the police had acted promptly, and she had gained entry to the NRM process before her visa expired, Wen had the right to work legally, caring for a British family.
“It’s good because I’m earning higher than the Riyadh salary,” she said. “The family are good also. They’re not shouting. They’re not saying that you’re crazy or lazy, because in Riyadh my head was loaded with bad words.”
Yet, according to Marissa Begonia, Wen has since fallen victim to the demanding processing system. For so far undisclosed reasons, she was rejected by the NRM for a “conclusive grounds” decision that would certify she is a victim of modern slavery.
According to campaigners, such decisions illustrate how modern-slavery legislation, designed to protect victims of organised crime, works poorly to protect victims of the abuses that domestic workers face.
Begonia says that if Wen loses an expected appeal, she could also lose her right to remain in the UK. “It’s one of many cases that I expected to be positive,” she says. “This result is depressing.”
Virginia Mantouvalou points to a still more fundamental problem. Speaking in her top-floor office, Mantouvalou, professor of human rights and labour law at University College London, attributes many of the difficulties facing domestic workers to a visa regime introduced in 2012 that she calls “a recipe for exploitation and abuse”.
The previous visa, introduced in 1998, allowed domestic workers to renew their visas for up to five years, change employers and eventually seek UK citizenship, says Mantouvalou, a trustee of the Kalayaan charity that is helping Canuday. The new version lasts just six months and is non-renewable.
This current structure means that workers have too little time in the UK to bring cases against abusive employers in employment tribunals, the UK’s main labour courts. Those who escape generally find it impossible to secure a new employer for the remainder of such a short visa term. “It . . . makes you feel suspicious about how committed the government are to tackling modern slavery,” Mantouvalou says.
“Of course, there are terrible individual employers who take advantage of workers. But there are structures, including legal structures, that make workers vulnerable to exploitation. So why not change those as well?”
The system’s failings have conspired jointly against Canuday. Staff at Kalayaan, based in the community hall of a Roman Catholic church close to St John’s, quickly sought a “reasonable grounds” decision to enter her into the NRM. But the Home Office refused the application because Canuday’s passport, which her employer had retained, was recorded as having left the UK at the same time as the employer.
The department rejected her application, having decided, implausibly, that Canuday must have returned to Saudi Arabia with her employer, then re-entered the UK illegally.
While officials subsequently reversed their decision, Canuday’s visa expired in the six weeks between the rulings. That meant she was stripped of the right to work while her case was processed by the NRM, a procedure that often lasts as long as two years. Canuday’s case has already dragged on for two and a half years.
Avril Sharp, casework and policy officer for Kalayaan — the name means “freedom” in Tagalog — says her organisation is encountering growing numbers of such “stupid” Home Office decisions. That increase adds evidence to the suggestion that conditions for migrant domestic workers coming to the UK are gradually worsening.
In 2018, the last full year on record, 52 Filipinos were recorded by the NRM as victims of domestic servitude, the form of modern slavery most similar to Canuday’s and Wen’s experiences. Workers’ stories — along with the accounts of groups that help them — make it clear that those figures represent only a tiny proportion of overall abused domestic workers in the UK, and there are many others who either fail to qualify or never apply to the NRM.
For Kalayaan, the changes since 2012 have obliged the group to reduce its previous campaigning work to focus on helping clients who the system is serving ever more poorly, says Sharp, who struggles to hide her frustration. “A large part of our time is taking clients and trying to sort their mess out, the mess they’ve got into because of the immigration system.”
Speaking beneath the high, vaulted ceilings that betray the Kalayaan offices’ origins as a church school, Canuday says she is frustrated she cannot earn money to remit to her family, who sent her to Saudi Arabia because they were struggling to pay their rent. In Saudi Arabia, her employer had paid her only around SR500 (about £100) a month, instead of the SR2,500 she was promised. But she says she was nevertheless able to remit SR100 or SR200 a month to her family.
“For the sake of my family, it’s better [if] I’m in Saudi,” Canuday says. “I’m suffering too much but [then] my family can survive.”
Such frustration is universal among those waiting for conclusive-grounds decisions without the right to work. Annie Ebrahim, 38, a Kalayaan client who also hails from Mindanao, says she was terrified after running away from an abusive, powerful Abu Dhabi family during a stay at a property in Buckinghamshire in 2015.
As a result, Ebrahim — not her real name — waited before seeking Kalayaan’s help and consequently lost the right to work. Like other people waiting for an NRM decision without the right to work, she has to get by on a £35 a week government allowance to cover all her food, transport and clothing costs. “I can’t support my family, even myself,” says Ebrahim. “I’m just like a poor lady. I have one son — he needs my support to him and my family.”
A visit to the office of James Ewins, an experienced family-law barrister in London’s Middle Temple complex, holds out some hope of a potential solution to the problems facing Ebrahim and the other women.
On a bookshelf just within reach of his desk, Ewins keeps a now seldom-consulted copy of the report that Theresa May’s Home Office commissioned him to draw up in 2015 on the future of the Overseas Domestic Workers’ visa.
Like many involved in the field, Ewins, who is precise, well-spoken and earnest, remains worried about the challenge of letting staff behind the locked doors of privileged employers’ residences know their rights.
There is little prospect that the Home Office will act on one key unmet recommendation of his report: that workers should be allowed to extend their initial six-month visa up to a total stay of two and a half years as it would be impossible to secure their rights in a shorter period.
However, the department has also failed to act on a more straightforward suggestion — that all holders of domestic workers’ visas should have to attend, shortly after their arrival in the UK, an information meeting explaining their rights under UK law, in their own language. No contractor is willing to organise the meetings on its behalf, the Home Office has said.
Ewins, who is mostly tight-lipped about the government’s response to his report, argues that information meetings would provide a welcome opportunity to ensure independent advisers met workers separately from their employers.
“My suspicion is the information meeting might bring to light a group of people for whom [legal] remedies are not available, despite the fact that they should be,” he adds.
Yet, in Notting Hill, Larry Galon is sceptical improvements will come soon. Father Larry, as his congregation calls him, is a smiling, unassuming man and head of the Filipino chaplaincy of the Church of England’s Diocese of London.
One Sunday evening in an empty St John’s, he estimates that about two-thirds of the 60 to 80 people who gather for Tagalog eucharist each Sunday are domestic workers who fled abusive employers.
“We try to give them an opportunity to enjoy their freedom in my community here,” he explains. He adds jokingly that he is not allowed to drink too much at parties in case he is called out to help a freshly escaped worker.
Shortly after Christmas, a couple from the congregation called him because their employer, from Kuwait, had thrown them out at 2am when they requested compensation for working the whole year without a break.
In Galon’s view, the bureaucratic barriers facing such absconding workers are growing more formidable; many feel powerless. Rather than navigate the twists and turns of the NRM, he thinks the majority of people slip into London’s dangerous, unregulated grey economy. “I’m not really sure if our voice can be heard,” Galon says.
“Maybe that’s one of the reasons that most of the Filipinos choose to stay below the radar — because from the very start, from the very beginning of their servitude, they’re deprived.”
Robert Wright is the FT’s social policy correspondent
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