Abuse of Migrant Domestic Workers and what makes their situation so vulnerable
Each year, Kalayaan collects data on hundreds of MDWs when they approach the organisation for the first time and are registered (an average of over 350 MDWs a year). We have found that physical and psychological abuse is widespread. On average, over 80 per cent of MDWs registering at Kalayaan each year are women. At least ten per cent suffer sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. Living and working conditions are extremely poor, as many domestic workers are not given a bed or allowed regular meals.
The following data was collected from the 387 MDWs who registered at Kalayaan during the
financial year 2005 to 2006.
86% of MDWs who registered were women.
- Physical abuse 23%
- Psychological abuse 70%
- Food deprivation 71%
- No room or private space 56%
- Working over 16 hours a day 86%
|© Anti-Slavery International|
A quarter reported being hit or beaten by their employers. Sometimes this would happen regularly.
Or else they would be beaten as a punishment for a small mistake such as burning food, or washing
clothes in a way their employer would deem inappropriate. Kalayaan also receives reports of physical
abuse in response to the worker asking for entitlements such as their salary owed to them. Another
commonly reported type of physical abuse is that of employers burning workers’ hands on the stove,
or with cooking oil, as punishment for mistakes in cooking. Disturbingly, physical abuse is often
reported as being perpetrated by women employers; and this includes beating male workers.
On other occasions, workers report being regularly slapped, hit, and spat at by the employers’
children, including children of 12 and 14 years old; and this being condoned by the parents
Unfortunately, physical abuse is rarely reported to the authorities. Workers are seldom in a position
to contact the police at the time of the abuse. By the time they have run away and gone to the police,
the bruises have usually faded. Without hard evidence, the police will not follow up. In addition, abuse
rarely happens in the presence of external witnesses.
Psychological abuse, including shouting, insults, in particular of a racist nature, and threats to the
worker or the worker’s family are highly prevalent among migrant domestic workers: 72 per cent of
workers registered at Kalayaan in 2006 stated they had been psychologically abused.
Employers can instil in workers such fear of the outside world that they will almost certainly be too
frightened to escape. In most cases, this is combined with their not being allowed to leave the house.
Additionally, poor knowledge of English and British customs may leave MDWs unable to deal with the
world outside the household. Combined with employers maintaining that if the worker leaves, she will
be arrested by the police and sent home, thrown into jail, or raped by unknown men, this means that
workers can be at the mercy of their employers and dependent on them for everything.
Such treatment is, of course, illegal under UK labour law. But is unlikely to be reported, as MDWs
would usually have no idea of how to challenge such treatment. There is a need to raise awareness
of the status of domestic work in private households as ‘work’, and to continue to educate MDWs
about their rights.
Taboos around sexual abuse mean that it is often under-reported. Workers fear that their families might
learn about it, and that they may be stigmatised. Ramani (Case study one) explained: ‘I have no face
to go home, because [rape] is always the female’s fault.’
Sexual abuse then becomes another tool of control over the domestic worker. Some male employers
may indeed expect their domestic worker to be sexually available to them. MDWs may not be able
to prevent sexual harassment, as they are tied to their employer in every aspect of their lives and
would risk losing their job if they reacted. They may be frightened to tell the other members of
the employer’s family as they feel that they would be seen as to blame, and punished accordingly.
In one case, an employer’s son tried to rape a male domestic worker in their employ. When he
reported this to his employer, she became furious with him for accusing her son of ‘being gay’.
Workers living in their employers’ homes are often unable to avoid sexual abuse because they do
not have their own room, or if they do (like in Ramani’s case), they cannot lock the door.
Living and Working Conditions
Living and working conditions for domestic workers can often be very poor, especially since the majority
of MDWs ‘live in’, and as such are entirely dependent on their employers for accommodation and food.
In most of the interviews conducted at Kalayaan, domestic workers complained that their employers
did not give them access to sufficient food. Over 40 per cent of workers registered by Kalayaan in 2006
were not allowed regular meals. In some cases, the workers are not allowed to eat the same food as
their employers, or were given very little to cook with. In other cases, the domestic worker is forced to
eat the family’s leftovers, a deeply humiliating experience.
Over 40 per cent of domestic workers registered in 2006 did not have their own bed. It emerged from
conversations and interviews that employers usually make the worker share a room, or even a bed,
with either another domestic worker, or with the children. In a surprisingly high number of cases,
domestic workers were forced to sleep on the floor in a corridor or a living room (often without so much
as a mattress). Some report having to sleep on the floor in their employer’s room, again highlighting
their vulnerability to sexual abuse. Even when workers have their own room, it is often a cupboard or
utility room, or a room that they are expected to vacate on a regular basis, when the employer’s family
want to use it.
Working hours are particularly long, with daily breaks, days off, and holidays being an unusual
occurrence. MDWs registered by Kalayaan in 2006 stated that the average duration of their workday
was 16.5 hours, with over 41 per cent of MDWs working between 16 and 20 hours a day.
Moreover, 70 per cent of workers registered did not have any time off during the week. Paid holidays
were also a rarity, a very low number of MDWs interviewed having had a paid holiday since being in
Employers Keep Passports
Often, employers unlawfully keep their workers’ passports. This is a criminal offence. Moreover,
it deprives MDWs of their only form of identification, preventing them from accessing a series of
services. Apart from the psychological control employers maintain over workers through the use of threats and scare tactics, MDWs are disadvantaged by the fact that they are highly dependent on their employers for their continued legality and housing in the UK.
Impact of Poverty on MDW and their Families Dependence on their Income
Another kind of dependency also works against MDWs: it is not unusual for them to send money
to their families. These remittances are sometimes essential for the bare survival of up to 15 people in the worker’s country of origin.
A Lack of Information
The success MDWs have in accessing their rights is varied. The overarching problem – a lack of
information – is still widespread. Most MDWs are unable to find protection because they are not
informed of their rights and the conditions of their visa. Even when they are informed, they face
additional barriers. They may not be fluent in English or accustomed to dealing with bureaucracy
and government officials. At the same time, government officials, immigration officials, police officers, embassy workers, and healthcare practitioners are often misinformed as to the specific situations and vulnerabilities of MDWs. They are often unable to help them when they are in abusive