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Why the UK's 'Modern Slavery' Problem Is Only Getting Worse, and New Laws Might Not Help

There are an estimated 8,300 'modern slaves' in the UK. We spoke to Sheila, a former victim, and campaigners who have concerns about legislation currently being debated in the House of Lords.
Photo by Georgi C

Sheila is a softly spoken woman with long, dark hair. She hasn't seen her children for several years — not since she left the Philippines to become a nanny — but everything she has done since is for them.

"My babies. I wanted them to go to school so they didn't have to work like I did," she told VICE News.

Sheila — not her real name —is also a domestic migrant worker, a victim of abuse and human trafficking. She is one of the "modern-day slaves" that campaigners say are not adequately covered by the UK legislation that is currently being debated by the House of Lords.


A single mother, Sheila approached an agency who said that they could get her a job as a nanny in the Middle East. She traveled to Dubai, where her new employers quickly demonstrated that her reality there would be very different from their promises.

In an interview with VICE News, Sheila cried as she recalled the contract she signed, agreeing a salary of $400 per month. She said that she was actually paid $200, though often even this wasn't handed over. The costs of calling her family, a solace she could rarely afford, were deducted from that.

'He shouted at me like an animal.'

Sheila said she often lied in those phone calls home. She told her children that she was doing well, that she wasn't unhappy, that everything was okay. She didn't mention the lock on the front door that prevented her from escaping.

During the day, Sheila was responsible for all the cleaning, cooking, and childcare. At night, she slept in a bed with her employer's baby. Sometimes she would be kept up until 3am to work at a party, rising again at 6am to watch the four children.

She cried again as she recalled how her employer would call to her like a dog, verbally abusing her if she didn't come fast enough. "He shouted at me like an animal," she said.

When Sheila's Dubai employer traveled to England, she was taken with him. Inside the airport, she was briefly given her passport so she could walk through immigration. It was removed from her again on the other side of the checkpoint.


Around 15,000 migrant domestic workers travel to the UK with their employers each year. While many don't suffer abuse, the isolated nature of their situation means that those who do are extremely difficult to identify, andhave very little protection.

Around 35.8 million people are enslaved around the planet, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index, published in November. The report estimated that 8,300 of these are in the UK.This statistic encompasses many different types of slavery, including forced marriage and sale, sex trafficking, and the exploitation of children.

Meet the Nepalese woman who has saved 50k people from human trafficking. Read more here.

The topic of slavery was brought to the fore of national UK debate last year when Aravindan Balakrishnan was arrested and accused of imprisoning three women in his south London home for up to 30 years. On Thursday, he was charged with 25 offences, including rape.

The Modern Slavery Bill is the UK's attempt to tackle all forms of this problem. Home Secretary Theresa May told Sky News: "It is really shocking how many people are effectively in slavery in the United Kingdom… It's happening up and down our country."

May said the proposed bill was the first of its kind in Europe: "I believe it's going to make a real difference, both to victims, but also, crucially, to catching perpetrators."

Karen Bradley, the minister for Modern Slavery and Organized Crime, agreed with these sentiments in the Telegraphon Saturday. "The time has come to stop pretending. We can no longer shut our eyes, turn our backs or look the other way," Bradley wrote.


'It's really hard when you're providing the caring role for the children, while being abused by their parents.'

The proposed legislation compiles offenses on trafficking and slavery, toughens sentences for traffickers, and introduces provisions for seizing their assets. An independent anti-slavery commissioner with a UK-wide remit has also been created, a position that will initially be filled by Kevin Hyland. However, the bill has been criticized for focusing too much on punishing the perpetrators while doing little to protect the victims.

Instead of improving, the rights and safeguards for domestic migrant workers have been worsening in recent years. In 2011, the UK refused to back the "landmark" Domestic Workers Convention, an international treaty proposed by the International Labor Organization. In April 2012, the rules for migrant domestic workers in the UK were changed during an attempt to tighten immigration laws, and they were banned from changing employers. At the time, May said that this would stop unskilled workers from gaining permanent access to Britain. This tied visa system, along with workers' desperation to pay debts and keep earning money to send home, means that they can become trapped in a domestic situation, and are much less likely to approach authorities or report abuse.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled Hidden Away points out just how vulnerable migrant domestic workers are, adding that as the abuse is carried out in the privacy of someone's home this makes it "difficult for (workers) to seek help, and for people on the outside to see what is happening."


Kate Roberts, community advocate at migrant workers' support organization Kalayaan, told VICE News that Sheila's situation is very common. "They're told one thing; the reality is another. They're given no real information about their rights, what they're meant to be paid, or when.

"You can see how this prolonged level of exhaustion — being on call all the time, having no privacy, and being constantly psychologically abused, screamed at, and told you're a dog for years — is going to have a major psychological effect."

She added: "I think it's really hard when you're providing the caring role for the children, while being abused by their parents."

To be raped or to become a prostitute in Beirut. Read more here.

Roberts said that around 200 women turn up at the Kalayaan offices each year, though this number is drastically down from the pre-2012 figures.

"Prior to April 2012 — when domestic workers had leave to change employer — we would see lots of workers turning up here in the same position as Sheila describes, with no money and no passport. We could fax the British embassy who issued the visa, get proof of the visa, and use that to show that they had evidence. If they got a new job they could use that to apply for a new visa."

Kalayaan's London office has posters on the walls with job postings, notices about meet-ups, and information about language lessons. "There are still some pre-2012 victims who come in to look at those," Roberts said.


She claims that there is a simple way to decrease abuse against domestic workers: giving them back the ability to change employer. Without this safeguard,Kayalaan can't help people like they used to.

Roberts told the story of a woman who recently came to the organization to escape a job where she was earning £26 ($40) a week. "After we explain the situation to them they say they want to go back to their employer. Even if they're just earning £26 a week and being exploited. The woman said: 'I have to send some money home. Better £26 than nothing.'"

Meanwhile, Roberts claimed that a return to the previous rules wouldn't mean a huge influx of immigrants. Even if migrant domestic workers can change jobs they still have to work as domestic workers — something that British people are often unwilling to do — and thus filling an empty gap in the labor force, rather than taking jobs or social benefits.

'Why have they changed a system that worked quite well to a system that facilitates abuse and trafficking?'

Roberts said that at Kayalaan they deal with some of the country's most vulnerable. About 78 percent of the people who have come to them on the tied visa are not in possession of their passports. Around 71 percent say they have never been allowed out of the house unsupervised, while 60 percent earned less than £50per week. Many are in debt from their migration costs.

"I think the bottom line is there have to be laws to protect people," Roberts said.


"Why have they changed a system that worked quite well to a system that facilitates abuse and trafficking? It appears to be because of immigration concerns. We've changed it to a system where people have absolutely no recourse to justice while saying that we want to be the leading world force on anti-slavery issues. It looks hypocritical, and it is hypocritical."

Izza Leghtas, Western Europe researcher at HRW, is calling on the government to amend the Modern Slavery Bill to add adequate safeguards and enforceable rights. She told VICE News that the Modern Slavery Bill represents "a real opportunity for parliament and the government to address this situation," but that right now it's failing.

"It doesn't change the fact that they are now tied to one employer, which we have identified as facilitating abuse and leaving domestic workers basically trapped in situations where, if they leave, they become undocumented migrants.

"Employers who are abusive can continue to be abusive without facing the consequences."

Leghtas added: "These are people who are under a lot of pressure from their families back home who need them to provide for them, so they will endure high levels of abuse… Allow them to get other employment in the same sector, and they won't be afraid of the authorities. If they're terrified of being removed from the UK, that's a huge obstacle in seeking redress."

Immigrants are being kept as slaves in European grow ops. Read more here.

Sheila arrived in England in May 2012 — one month after the laws for domestic migrant workers changed. She managed to escape from the house her employer's family was staying in because the door unlocked from the inside. With no passport and no money, she found herself in Westfield shopping center, West London. A friend's brother sent her to Kalayaan.

Sheila now has a new employer who knows her past and treats her well. She gets days off. She has her own room. She is allowed to regularly call her family. "My babies look well. They are still in school. I tell them I'm happy, and I tell them I have a better employer." Her son is 12 and her daughter is eight.

Sheila was given discretionary leave to stay in the UK because of "personal circumstances," but this is relatively unusual. Her leave runs out next week, and she doesn't know what will happen then. When asked what she'll do if she is sent back to the Philippines, Sheila couldn't form an answer, except to say: "I don't want to return to the Middle East." She didn't rule it out, though.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Photo via Flickr