Last November, the British tabloids were ablaze with headlines about a sensational case of “modern day slavery”: three women were reportedly rescued from forced “domestic servitude”—a captivity that had lasted three decades under the grip of a mysterious expatriate couple. The Brits were outraged that such an atrocity could have gone on seemingly unnoticed for so long in a busy metropolis.
The idea that “slavery” was still possible in twenty-first century England sparked a heated political debate, generating support for an “anti-slavery bill” that included long prison terms for perpetrators of trafficking and forced labor. But now that the media spotlight has faded from the salacious slavery house, softer forms of indentured servitude still flourish across London—and the law actually allows this bondage. These are immigrants imported legally, as household servants for foreign nationals, from the Global South. And their exploitation is less shocking to the conscience because it is so integral to the economic status quo.
An extensive investigation published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals how the exploitation of migrant domestic workers in Britain has been aided and abetted by Parliament. Under United Kingdom visa law, affluent foreign nationals are allowed to bring “the help” with them, granting special work authorization to the servants they kept before moving to the UK. The scope of human rights laws and UK labor regulation seems to stop at the doorstep of the homes where these workers toil in isolation.
Of the roughly 15,000 migrant domestic workers entering the UK each year on special labor visas, an untold number are subjected to brutal, restrictive work regimens. The workers interviewed, mostly women from the Philippines, India, Morocco and Nigeria, are hired as servants and caretakers for children and the elderly, endure a range of abuses (working around the clock without adequate food), are denied their promised wages, and are even barred from going outside. “Andrea” told researchers:
They locked me up in the house in London, and when we went outside, sometimes they didn’t give me food. I didn’t have a sim card, I didn’t have money. My boss sent my salary to the Philippines.
The violations documented in HRW’s surveys and interviews include: “the confiscation of passports, confinement to the home, physical and psychological abuse, extremely long working hours with no rest days, and very low wages or non-payment of wages.” UK authorities should hardly be shocked by the fact that this is happening in an affluent Western democracy—the law allows for the direct importation of a type of traditional labor indenture known as the Kafala system from Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, a country that Western politicians have condemned for human rights abuses against migrant workers.