Raffy Marshall is a history student.
In 1962 the Saudi Monarchy, inconvenienced by Anglo-American criticism, got round to legislating against slavery. Similarly enlightened Qatar followed shortly afterwards. The Gulf’s ban on slavery is therefore only three years older than David Cameron. But the slave trade’s legacy will haunt the region well after the Prime Minister is consigned to a Berkshire churchyard. Short of amputating arms or driving nails into flesh, Gulf employers can still get away with doing almost anything to migrant workers.
Labour norms roughly comparable to the later Roman Empire’s do not preclude geo-political co-operation. None the less, the plight of the roughly 10,000 people who travel to Britain annually as domestic servants to families from the Gulf ought to give us pause. The combination of normalised employee abuse in the Gulf and the extreme isolation of impoverished overseas domestic labourers is appalling. Whilst data is sparse, total isolation, ignorance of British Law, fear of deportation, and assumptions of official disbelief mean that most abuse is never reported. Britain risks becoming the stage for hundreds of quiet tragedies.
The 2012 visa rules, whereby overseas domestic labourers’ visas depend on the sponsorship of their employer, probably increase this risk. The system allows employers to threaten abused employees with deportation whilst also preventing them from fleeing to a new job. Isolation and fear prevents the enforcement of labour regulation. Conversely, sponsored visas prevent escape or labour market competition. Granting an employer a work monopoly is to licence depravity. Milton Friedman said: “The real protection that a worker gets is the existence of more than one possible employer.” In a freer market, visa sponsors wishing to avoid the cost and inconvenience of finding a new servant would probably hold back from some of the worst forms of abuse.
The Independent Review of the Overseas Domestic Workers Visa conducted by James Ewins QC, a fellow of the Centre for Social Justice, makes a series of considered and well-evidenced recommendations. First, that visa holders be permitted to change employer. The current requirement that victims demonstrate abuse to the authorities before finding new work is intimidating, and therefore traps victims. Second, that any change of job must be registered to prevent the outstaying of visas. Third, that visa extensions of up to two years beyond the current maximum term of six months be permitted. Domestic service jobs almost always demand a medium term commitment. The theoretical right to change jobs is therefore useless to victims without the availability of visa extensions. Not every victim of abuse can liberate themselves with this escape mechanism, but those who can have an absolute right to.
The Government has partially implemented Ewins’ recommendations: the right to change jobs will be introduced – but not visa extensions. The current requirement that victims demonstrate abuse to the authorities before being granted a visa extension will remain in place. In reality, the Government’s diluted reforms are therefore highly limited in scope. Less than six months will frequently not be enough to find a job, because most employers want a medium-term commitment. And commitment is especially necessary for people escaping from abuse because they won’t have any references.
James Brokenshire, the Immigration Minister, has set out the Government’s rationale as follows: “If overseas domestic workers were able to change employers and significantly prolong their stay, irrespective of whether they have reported this abuse, they may be less likely to report abuse.:
The sentiment is creditable, but the logic is not. It is estimated that only around 35 per cent of spousal abuse is reported. The state has been doing everything it can think of to increase that number for three decades. Most victims of spousal abuse are not isolated from society, fearful of the police, or ignorant of the law: almost all overseas domestic laborers are. It would be a minor miracle if anything remotely close to 35 per cent of abused laborers sought official help.
Victims are almost entirely from countries with venal or brutal law enforcement agencies. In the Gulf States where many have previously worked, law enforcement explicitly aims to keep poor immigrants in semi-slavery. Indeed, frequently abusive employers threaten to call the police. From the victim’s perspective, therefore, the police are a problem, not the solution.
Enforcement action should never be abandoned, but in the context we owe victims another escape option. Because priority for most victims is remitting money to their family, they’re most likely to come forward if provided with the financial and physical security of a new job. Visa extensions therefore provide a pathway to information.
Without these visa extensions, the choice facing abused domestic workers is a bleak one. A brave few will report. Most will suffer in silence. A sizeable minority will get longer-term alternative work by illegally outstaying their visa. We can only minimize illegal immigration if the system offers people palatable choices.
In a rational, sanitised world the government’s policy would be highly effective, but policymaking needs to cater for the chaos of real life. The Home Office, and Brokenshire in particular, deserve credit for the historic 2015 Modern Slavery Act. However, they must not rest on their laurels. The Ewins Report’s modest recommendations are an opportunity to bring agency and hope to people with precious little of either. Let’s not waste it.