ANOTHER WORD FOR SLAVERY
Filipino Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Kingdom
CITY, UNIVERSITY OF LONDON (2015), MA INTERNATIONAL JOURNALISM
“It takes a lot of nerve to say this in front of you now, but I’ve been interviewed by a lot of journalists and that empowered me as well, because I’m talking about real life experiences, you see?”
Jamima Fagta, 32, is a young Filipina from Baiguo, a city located in the province of Benguet in the northern Luzon island of the Philippines. Jamima is the Project & Community Officer of Kanlungan, a charity group composed of Filipino organisations in the UK. She helps Filipino migrants understand their rights and guides them in the legal aid process. Weariness could be found in the distant, unhopeful nuances of her voice, as if she had said those words more times than she would have liked to admit.
“We always talk to journalists who make digital stories and we try to make speeches thinking that one day they will listen to us,” said Levy (real name has been changed), an undocumented Filipina migrant domestic worker, echoing Jamima’s disillusionment.
After recounting their stories to writers, academics and researchers countless times, it’s easy to understand why they are tired. Nothing has changed.
Filipino Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Kingdom
The plight of Filipino migrant domestic workers is not a new story, but it is a story that is not acknowledged enough. It would be remiss if you did not notice a Filipina pushing a stroller with a non-Filipino child, or carrying the maletas of non-Filipino families in an affluent neighbourhood or country. It is one of those situations that many are aware of, but it is often left unspoken.
Among the 250,000 Filipinos currently estimated to be living in the UK by the Philippines Embassy, many work in service-related industries and are employed as nurses, caregivers, domestic workers and restaurant workers. Domestic workers, in particular, make up a large number of migrants.
In a study by Kalayaan, a UK charity dedicated to aiding migrant domestic workers, roughly 14,000 visas are issued each year to migrant domestic workers accompanying their employers to the UK. Most of those migrants are women who left the Philippines in order to help their families and improve their lives.
“The interesting thing is that in the Philippines, we can’t find the money that we can find here (UK). That’s the key thing. Even though I was an accountant in the Philippines, I will not always have a job there. In the Philippines, they are very discriminating in age, height, etc.,” explained Levy.
Incentives like these influenced their migration to the UK, but many were not given the incentives promised by their employers.
Middle Eastern Connection
“In the early 80s, domestic workers came to this country bought by their rich employers, so most of them are from Arab countries like Syria, Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia,” explained Jamima. “I think they have a direct system of employing Filipino domestic workers through a government employment agency in the Philippines”.
That direct system of employment is known as the Kafala system, which ties migrant workers to an in-country patron, usually their employer, who acts as their visa sponsor. The Kafala system has been widely criticized by human rights advocates and organisations because great power is given to employers over their migrant labourers. The degree of power the employers exert can be compared to slavery.
Many Filipinos became migrant domestic workers through this system and eventually followed their employers when they moved to the UK, as in the cases of Ami and Cleo (both names have been changed).
Ami, now 27, was 19 years old when she first worked for a Syrian family of seven. She couldn’t read and write in her native Tagalog, but learned to speak Arabic to her employers. She worked approximately 15 hours a day, and even longer if her employers threw parties. Everyday she would have to clean the diplomats’ two homes, including all seven bedrooms. She was not allowed to go out or have days off. In three years time, she only received the equivalent of £2000.
Ami was greatly mistreated by her employers. In one case, they wouldn’t even let her go back to the Philippines to bury her dead mother. “You know what the lady employer said?” Jamima asked when recounting Ami’s story to me. “She said you cannot go because your mother is dead anyway – there is nothing to go back to”.
Ami unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide after her lady employer called her a haraam, an Arabic term meaning ‘sinful’, because she was caught on a neighbours’ video camera sneaking out of the employer’s home and talking to a man. She was immediately sent to the hospital and from there, a psychiatrist and Filipina nurse evaluated her. They quickly transferred her to another hospital when they realized her situation after getting into an argument with Ami’s employer. The police came and Ami never returned to her employers’ home again.
Ami is now planning to sue her employers, with the help of solicitors and Kanlungan, on the grounds of racial discrimination, non-payment of wages and exploitation. However, she and her legal team are first waiting for the Supreme Court’s challenge on behalf of one domestic worker regarding race discrimination.
“It’s the first ever challenge of that kind that went to the Supreme Court. We’ll see what the decision will be, but we won’t know until next year in 2015. Once we get the decision, if it would benefit Ami’s situation, that would be good,” said Jamima.
Cleo, 33, came to the UK after working as a migrant domestic worker in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a deputy in the medical department of the UAE Embassy. When they applied for her visa, it was stated in her certificate of sponsorship that she would receive £1000/week, but she only got £200.
She wasn’t allowed days off and could only attend church for one hour, every week. When her employers left their homes, they always locked the door. To add to the list of abuses: sometimes she wasn’t fed, she wasn’t given a SIM card to make phone calls until much later and the employer’s wife searched through her personal belongings. Cleo’s mother was also suffering from ovarian cancer at the time, but she wasn’t able to send money back home or speak to her.
“It’s my private life. It’s not in the contract that they would care for my private life as long as I do my job good. I take care of their children as my own, but still they don’t trust me,” said Cleo in her personal statement to Kanlungan.
Finally Cleo had enough. She ran away and left a note with her employers listing the reasons why she left. The family never replied. She was able to stay with some friends and even found a job with a new family, who treated her like one of their own.
Cleo is working with Jamima, Kanlungan and their trusted solicitors to sue her ex-employers on the grounds of being a victim of human trafficking. However, she has faced much adversity in her fight for justice. When police questioned her, they saw a photo of her sunbathing when they searched her phone, and used that as evidence against her claims of trafficking. They said that she was having a good time and therefore, not a victim. That picture was taken after she escaped her employers.
The police also told her that because her employer was a diplomat, she would essentially not win the case. Despite this, she is pushing ahead and planning to challenge the claims made by the police.
Undocumented Migrant Domestic Workers
Ami and Cleo were cases of Filipina migrant domestic workers who received proper visas to live and work in the UK through their employers, albeit through a corrupt system. However, there are also a large number of undocumented Filipino migrant domestic workers. Even though the actual number is unknown, a study by the London School of Economics in 2009 estimates around 618,000.
Undocumented workers are playing a cyclical game of hide-and-seek with British immigration authorities, fearing deportation at any time. The problem is that undocumented workers, in general, do not have any laws to protect them, making them prone to abuse and exploitation. They cannot do anything about their fears and mistreatment because they are ultimately not acknowledged by society.
“Compared to everybody, we came here for a better life,” said Levy, with a sad toughness in her voice, “That’s what we expect – a better life”.
Levy, 45, is an undocumented migrant domestic worker from the Philippines. She studied accounting and worked in the financial offices of various NGOs and churches. The jobs didn’t pay a lot, but she was happy.
“Maybe I did not become rich, but I was rich with what I learned. Maybe I did not work as a Makati girl or an Ayala girl like others did in the business, financial places in the Philippines. Maybe the way I see things now, I would not have seen it if I did not go into this job,” said Levy.
The job she is referring to is her key job. A key job is when workers are given the keys to homes of various families to provide their domestic services at an agreed time. Usually, the domestic workers come during the day and leave before their employers come home.
Levy came to the UK when her friend convinced her to stay after attending a conference there. She had already thought about doing something different with her life after a business venture with her friend failed back home in the Philippines. She decided to take the chance.
“There is a Filipino saying of ‘Bahala na ang Diyos’. It means, ‘Give it up to God’. God gives you everything. God gave you a brain, God gave you hands – use it. So I have to use that kind of philosophy saying, ‘I have my hands and I have this opportunity to get out’. People don’t have that opportunity to get out,” said Levy.
What is interesting about Levy’s case is that she had not been completely mistreated by her employers. She credits her education and the way she presents herself, but she was always defiant in being treated like human being and walked away from unscrupulous employers.
She is seeking the help of Kanlungan and Jamima for a different reason – she is planning to get married to her British-Turkish boyfriend next January. However, there is a stigma attached to immigrants marrying natives – the marriage is solely for visa reasons. But that is certainly not the case for Levy.
“It becomes the pursuit of immigration status before the pursuit of love,” said Jamima.
Modern Day Slavery
Immigration has become a subject of national concern this year because of the continuing rise of immigrants entering the UK. In a briefing by The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, the general UK public opinion toward immigrants was unfavourable, especially toward unskilled labourers.
When the International Labour Organisation (ILO) proposed the landmark Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189) in 2011, the UK was one of nine countries that refused to support it. In April 2012, the UK further attempted to tighten immigration by not allowing immigrants to change employers. By tying migrants to one employer, a modern day slavery attitude is perpetuated and practiced, even if it may not have been intentional on the part of the UK government.
“With the removal of the only concession that freed thousands of migrant domestic workers from bonded slavery in the past, this will generate more and more undocumented migrant domestic workers. Migrant domestic workers who are not affected by the removal of concession, but still on limited visas, were still in bonded labour because their immigration status can be used against them by their employers,” explained Jamima in an email correspondence.
Parliament and the government are currently drafting a Modern Slavery Bill to protect migrants, but many anti-slavery and human rights advocates are worried too much emphasis will be placed on punishing the traffickers rather than helping and protecting the victims themselves.
The general feeling among Filipino migrant domestic workers, who are facing troubles whether documented or undocumented, is that of anxiety and confusion. It is complicated for organisations like Kanlungan to help the migrants because there are is no specificity, even in the ILO convention, to support them. Additionally, it is difficult to find solicitors who will help migrants at a fair price, because most take advantage. It doesn’t make sense why a first world country that promotes anti-slavery, is practicing it to a certain degree.
“We just want to be recognized. We are not criminals. We came here to work. We are not here asking for benefits. We Filipinos are not used to benefits because in the Philippines, there are no benefits. We have to work,” said Levy. “It’s like I’m a different person. This is not me. It’s like an illness that I have to endure”.
Fagta, J. (2014). Enquiry for help on a story about Filipino migrants in the UK. [email].
Fagta, J. (2014). Jamima Fagta. [in-person interview]
Gov.uk, (2014). Domestic Workers in a Private Household visa – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/domestic-workers-in-a-private-household-visa/overview [Accessed 18 Dec. 2014].
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Ilo.org, (2014). Convention C189 – Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189). [online] Available at: http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=normlexpub:12100:0::no:12100:p12100_instrument_id:2551460:no [Accessed 18 Dec. 2014].
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Cleo Working File. (2014). [Personal Statement] Jamima Fagta, London.
 Filipina is a term to denote females who are of the Filipino culture.
 Maleta is the Tagalog word for ‘suitcase’.
 Makati, Ayala girl refers to Ayala Avenue in the city of Makati in the Philippines. The area is known for prostitution.