It is just after 7am on a rainy morning in July and 57-year-old Sheila Tilan is pacing up and down a private road that leads to one of London’s most exclusive streets.
She is wearing white trousers and a black shirt, just as she said she would.
Joggers pass by and a security guard sits in a nearby cabin, guarding a gate that leads to multimillion-pound mansions.
Sheila pretends to talk on her mobile phone so as not to draw attention to herself.
About an hour later, a tiny woman carrying a schoolgirl’s backpack and wearing baggy pink trousers emerges from one of the houses.
She walks towards Sheila and the two embrace briskly. They have been in telephone contact for weeks, but this is the first time they have met.
“Sorry, I had to make breakfast,” Florence* says in a whisper.
That morning, like every morning for the past four years, Florence, who is from the Philippines and looks younger than her 28 years, had made breakfast and tidied the living room of her employer’s house.
But this morning would be different, because the night before she had packed her belongings into the backpack and resolved to wear the three pairs of trousers and four t-shirts she could not cram into it.
Sheila is visibly relieved that her first rescue since the country went into lockdown in late March has been successful. But the past few months have been so busy that she has forgotten she no longer has a key to the apartment the Filipino Domestic Workers’ Association (FDWA), of which she is co-founder, uses as an informal safe house.
Recently, the apartment has become a haven for migrant workers who became homeless after losing their jobs during the coronavirus crisis.
With cafes and restaurants only serving takeaway food, Sheila and Florence find a bus stop to sit at as they wait for someone to bring them the key.
Florence admits with an embarrassed smile that it is the first time she has walked down these streets.
“A year and six months, I don’t go out,” she explains in broken English, her mood suddenly sullen.
Florence had first begun working for her employers, a diplomatic family, in Kuwait, and says that since they moved to London, she had only left the house to accompany members of the family on shopping trips.
Relations had turned sour during lockdown, she says, with the family installing a camera to monitor her, and withholding her pay (which was below the United Kingdom’s minimum wage) and passport.
The UK police are currently looking into the allegations and confirmed to Al Jazeera there have been no arrests.
In 2019, the UK government issued just under 23,000 Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visas, aimed at workers temporarily accompanying their employers from abroad. About half of these six-month visas were issued to workers from the Philippines.
Some 200 to 300 workers enter the country with a diplomatic household every year.
A 2017 freedom of information request shows that more than 70 percent of ODW visa applications to the UK are from Gulf countries whose kafala migrant sponsorship system, also used in Lebanon and Jordan, has been described by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as “inherently problematic”.
“The kafala system places this undue power with the employer that is magnified in relation to domestic workers,” Ryszard Cholewinski, a senior migration specialist in the ILO’s Regional Office for Arab States, explains, adding that live-in domestic workers in hard-to-monitor private homes are at particularly high risk of forced labour.
“[The ILO’s forced labour] indicators include things like withholding of passports and restricted movement of workers, which is exacerbated in the case of domestic workers as many of them are unable to leave the house,” Cholewinski adds.
A lack of social security often means that even middle-income families in Gulf countries are forced to hire outside help to care for children and the elderly. “Employers feel that they have made an investment and that the worker should stay with them for a number of years,” Cholewinski says.
The ILO estimates that 80 percent of the at least 67 million adult domestic workers worldwide are women, and that one in five is an international migrant.
In the UK, changes to the immigration rules in 2012 introduced a “tied visa” system that critics argued merely recreated the kafala, as a worker could not quit their job without becoming undocumented and risking deportation. The government countered that victims of abuse could be channelled through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s framework for modern slavery victims, with referrals made by designated first responders, including NGOs and the police.
An independent review of the ODW visa, commissioned by the government and published in 2015, recognised that the UK was inviting an average of 17,000 “potentially vulnerable individuals” into the country every year and recommended that workers be given the universal right to change employer and apply for visa extensions. As a result, domestic workers are now able to change employer while their six-month visa is still valid. But critics say the time limit makes the changes merely nominal.
Before becoming prime minister, Theresa May (who was then home secretary) had aimed for her political legacy to be leading the global fight against modern slavery. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act was hailed as “landmark legislation” aimed at making it easier to prosecute criminals – with the most serious offenders facing a life sentence – and to protect victims. But it ran counter to the Conservative government’s hardline immigration policies – designed to create a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants.
The government argued that the rules governing the ODW visa would work to prevent those who were not abused using it as a way into the country, while still offering protection to genuine victims.
In practice, victims may spend years with an insecure immigration status that gives them limited or no right to work or access welfare, essentially keeping them in a cycle of exploitation that the coronavirus pandemic – with its accompanying disruption and rise in unemployment – has only made worse.
The safe house is an airy three-bedroom apartment in an upscale neighbourhood of west London. Its owners live abroad, so Sheila persuaded them to put it to good use.
Exhausted after a two-hour police interview, Florence collapses on a sofa in what used to be a child’s bedroom.
“The policewoman said it’s very hard to establish a case [of] modern slavery when she signed a paper stating that she received this amount,” says Sheila, referring to Florence’s contract and visa paperwork, which claim she received double the 400 pounds ($525) a month Florence says she was actually paid.
“If you are telling me that it’s so hard to establish a case, and if I am the victim, then I will feel like you’re not helping me, because you’re not aware of what’s going on, what experience I had,” she continues, frustrated.
Sheila was a single mother of three sons when she travelled to the UK as a domestic worker in 2003. Her mother looked after her sons back in the Philippines while Sheila hopped from job to job in London. Immigration rules were more relaxed at the time, enabling her to become a permanent resident. She has since become a point of reference for the community, a role that, coupled with Florence’s young age, makes her feel protective towards her.
There has been a year-on-year rise in the number of referrals to the NRM. In 2019, 10,627 potential victims were referred – a 52-percent increase from 2018, and nearly double the 2017 figure. But observers believe the number of referrals is just the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to domestic workers, academics and frontline workers say that many prefer not to be referred for fear of what the process will involve.
“There is absolutely no guarantee that someone who has been ill-treated and possibly trafficked will manage to be recognised as a victim of trafficking,” Virginia Mantouvalou, a professor of human rights and labour law at University College London, explains.
Data suggests the uncertainty is magnified for potential victims without a UK or European Union passport: only 3 percent of those from outside the EU who were referred in 2019 had received a final decision confirming them as victims (known as “conclusive grounds”) by the beginning of 2020, while the figure for UK and EU nationals was 14 percent and 7 percent respectively. Overall, eight in 10 referrals had only received an initial “reasonable grounds” decision – identifying them as potential victims.
According to the charity Kalayaan, which has been assisting domestic workers in the UK for more than 30 years, domestic workers who enter the NRM face an average wait of 24 months before being recognised.
By the time Ana*, who is in her 40s, applied to the NRM during lockdown and received a positive reasonable grounds decision from the authorities, she had lost her right to work.
Potential victims whose six-month visa expires before they are recognised as such are unable to work legally in the country while their case is decided and are expected to survive on 39.60 pounds ($52) a week provided by the government as part of its victim support programme. In some cases, they are provided with accommodation, but according to Kalayaan this can be difficult to set up and many survivors opt instead for community support.
The agency that brought Ana from the Philippines to Abu Dhabi in 2011 first took advantage of her free labour for two weeks before handing her over to her designated employer. She says she was verbally and physically abused by the family she worked for and was soon returned to the agency, which sold her to another family for $3,000.
She recounts working “almost 24 hours” a day as she took care of a baby while also being responsible for household chores.
“I was doing everything. Cleaning, cooking, everything,” she explains over the phone as she is self-isolating due to her frail health, which she says deteriorated after she left the Philippines.
“They didn’t give me proper food and I didn’t have time to have a proper rest … I [was] very depressed and stressed.”
Whenever she left the house with the family, she was asked not to speak to anyone.
Her family back home had no guarantees she would be able to send them money as her employers once held back her salary for six months.
Then the family moved to London three years ago and one day she was asked to buy sugar at the local supermarket. She never returned.
She found low-paid, part-time undocumented work as a carer for the elderly, but when the coronavirus pandemic struck, she began to worry.
“I stopped my work because of the pandemic, because of my asthma,” she explains. “I had symptoms of COVID and I [was] scared to go to the hospital.”
Despite government reassurances that everybody is entitled to care regardless of immigration status, undocumented workers are often afraid of accessing healthcare for fear of being reported.
Ana has now approached the Voice of Domestic Workers, another community support group, and applied to the NRM. She has avoided destitution thanks to a friend who was able to accommodate her.
Josephine*, 38, thought she could breathe a sigh of relief when she was recognised as a victim of modern slavery earlier this year, until she found out that the two-year domestic worker visa she received was a shaky foundation on which to rebuild her life. The conditions of her visa are that she is only allowed to work in a private household, and has no access to welfare.
Compared with her previous employer, a woman she says would “beat me on my head and body, make me ashamed in front of a lot of people,” the elderly couple she works for in London treat her like part of the family. But due to travel restrictions, they were stuck outside the country after going on holiday, and Josephine was left in London with no work and no income.
“I didn’t have money to pay rent. [For] two months I didn’t send money to my kids,” the single mother of three teenage children in the Philippines explains. “I didn’t have any option but to seek help from my fellow Filipinas.”
Josephine’s work was suspended again recently due to the ill health of the man she cares for. But she feels she has little leverage to enforce her rights, negotiate pay or seek alternative employment.
“[When] I tell [employers] that I have a working permit for only household work, and that’s all, they can only pay me the minimum wage.”
Josephine, who has applied for asylum, wants to study to become a qualified carer. “Maybe when I get a final decision from the Home Office I can work as a caregiver, based on what I know,” she says.
“Even though she has the skills and experience that are in such short supply in the social care industry, this is an economic sector that she cannot tap into,” Avril Sharp, a policy and casework officer at the charity Kalayaan, explains.
Sharp says that a number of domestic workers in the charity’s network reported losing their jobs and becoming destitute at the height of the crisis.
“The risks are heightened for those undocumented in the UK who have lost their jobs,” Sharp adds.
Florence is likely to be referred to the NRM, but conviction rates for modern slavery offences remain low.
“There is a huge discrepancy between referrals under the NRM and prosecutions under the Modern Slavery Act,” says Mantouvalou. “This may be due to the difficulty of the situation, the fact this is a particularly hidden crime, because the police don’t have the right training yet. There are great weaknesses in the system.”
The immunity that applies to diplomatic households further complicates the picture.
“At the same time, the problem is not just that you can’t prosecute all these employers. The big problem is the vulnerability these workers have because of their visa. It’s more effective to improve the visa, to strengthen the right of domestic workers, than to just start prosecuting all these mean employers,” Mantouvalou adds.
At the safe house, Florence is entertaining her new flatmates by singing Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On. They are Amelia, a carer of Jamaican origin who had been evicted by her landlord weeks earlier; and Lili, who lost her job as a live-out cleaner when she was told her services would not be needed during lockdown. Both are part of an army of invisible undocumented workers who were left with no support and facing destitution when work dried up during the pandemic.
Sheila, who cooked everyone fish for lunch with Florence as her helper, looks over the scene with amusement and a hint of pride, knowing she is the one who made this temporarily carefree atmosphere possible. They will think about Florence’s two children, who need her help during lockdown in the Philippines, tomorrow.
“I wish the government would create more jobs at home, so that people will stop leaving the country,” Sheila reflects. “People were forced to leave the country because there is no opportunity, no job, even if you finish your schooling, if you are a professional. You need to leave the country to find a place where you can work and you will be paid and can support your family.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation‘s Howard G Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.