Migrant domestic helps in Britain at risk, says study

July 2nd, 2008 - 1:56 pm ICT by IANS  

By Venkata Vemuri
London, July 2 (IANS) The case of an Indian maid harassed for wages by her high profile employers in February brought pressure on the government to tighten wage laws for migrant domestic staff. However, most of them continue to suffer abuse, a new study reveals. The study by Oxfam and campaign group Kalayaan finds that 10 percent of them reported sexual abuse, 26 percent physical abuse and 72 percent psychological abuse from bosses. Oxfam’s Kate Wareing says they are among “the most vulnerable and exploited people in the UK”.

The study redirects focus on this vulnerable segment after the case of the Indian maid, Violet D’Souza, drew the government’s attention to the problem for the first time in many years.

Violet was brought to Britain as a legal domestic help by Indian-origin businessman Arun Nayar after he married actress Liz Hurley. The couple fired her without notice last August and this February she decided to take her case to court. It was eventually settled out of court with a five-figure compensation for Violet.

The Nayars allegedly paid Violet Rs.8,000 a week, worth about 100 pounds. That works out at between 1.40 pounds and 1.60 pounds an hour. And depending on the exchange rate and how long she worked, some weeks her hourly wage was as little as 1.20 pounds. The legal minimum is 5.52 pounds. Violet’s main perk was the offer of airline tickets home to see her family in India.

Violet is not alone in her plight. She is just the tip of an iceberg of exploitation in Britain today.

The Oxfam-Kalayaan report, titled “The New Bonded Labour?”, argues that the workers, mostly poor women from developing countries brought to Britain by employers, are routinely ill-treated. They mostly come from India, Africa and eastern Europe.

Of the staff registered in 2006 with Kalayaan - which campaigns for more rights for migrant domestic workers - 43 percent of workers say they do not have their own bed.

As many as 41 percent say they do not get regular meals, 70 percent say they are given no time off and 61 percent say they are not allowed out of the house without their employer’s permission.

The study reveals that some report physical abuse. One was blinded in one eye after her employer threw hot tea at her, and ran away after her employer’s husband attempted to rape her.

Kate Roberts of Kalayaan says the government should do more to protect these workers. The Home Officer has recently dropped proposed visa changes which, according to Roberts, would have tied domestic workers to one employer.

The activist groups want the domestic staff entering Britain to get registered with official agencies and seek employment.

The BBC News Channel, which reported the study, quotes a Home Office spokesperson as saying: “We recently announced that we will keep the current entry route to the UK for overseas domestic workers, with all its protections, for two years.”

However, that still does not solve the problem of another set of migrant workers who enter the country with the help of unlicensed agencies that scour the developing countries for cheap workers, who are sometimes kept in conditions of virtual slavery.

Said Tony Woodley, general secretary of Unite that fights for the rights of working people: “This situation is about exploitation, not migration. Greedy bosses will take advantage of vulnerable workers if they are allowed to do so. And in many cases they get away with it, through fear, ignorance and bullying. It is anybody’s guess how many there are.”

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