Working under Slavery-like Conditions: Migrant Domestic Workers in the UK

In December 2013, the case of Devyani Khobragade captured the public’s attention on the treatment of migrant domestic workers in diplomatic households. Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat working in the U.S. was arrested for visa fraud and abusing her house keeper, Sangeeta Richard. When this story became public, it sparked the media’s attention worldwide.1 She had been accused of enormously underpaying her domestic worker while additionally forcing her to work 100 hours or more per week. Overwhelming feelings of great injustice of this case deeply affected and subsequently sparked the public’s attention about domestic workers. The ultimate question of the case seems to be, why a person with such a high status and position of power would go so far as to exploit an employee in a dependent and weak position.

When looking at data available on the working conditions of domestic workers, it becomes quite clear that the case might not be as exceptional or rare as it might seem. It is also important to note that underpaying and long working hours are not the only kinds of mistreatment domestic workers must face.2

About the Study

In 2013, our research team conducted research to shedlight upon the working conditions of Migrant Domestic Workers (MDW) in the UK. The study used qualitative social research methodology which consisted of gathering data via interviews with experts and MDWs themselves. Combining this primary data with secondary data from other research projects, the analysis of the collected information allowed us to develop an extensive understanding of the certain most pressing problems MDWs have to face during their working life in the UK.

Situation of Migrant Domestic Workers in the UK

Annually, about 20.000 Migrant Domestic Workers come to the UK due to the high demand for cheap workforce. Typical tasks of MDWs include cooking, cleaning, ironing, taking care of children and elderly or disabled family members. Countries of origin of the workers are mostly India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Nepal to name but the most common.3 Also MDWs are commonly female.4

It seems to be quite a common problem that the tasks and working conditions differ a lot from what was agreed upon previously in the job interview or on what has been written down in the working contract. This includes for example that even very demanding tasks, such as gardening, or taking care of babies 24/7 might be imposed on the worker besides “normal” household tasks. It is very common that payment is much less than the national minimum wage in the UK. About 70% of MDWs in the UK are paid £250 (~€300) per month and less. It is obvious that even if some of the living expenses of the worker are covered by the employer, £250 is barely enough to support basic needs such as clothing, in addition to supporting the family back in the country of origin, as it is the case for most MDWs. Sometimes the workers won’t be paid on time, or the employer even withholds the payment completely, putting the MDW into a situation of complete dependence., Even when holidays and decent working hours are promised in the initial work contract, many MDWs have to fight for their rights to take days off or arrange holidays. It seems to be quite common for Migrant Domestic Workers to not be allowed to go on vacations and to furthermore have extremely long working hours, way above official health standards. It seems to be a common procedure that the employer confiscates the legal documents, such as passport and visa documents of the worker when they begin to work in the household; and thereby drastically limiting their personal freedom, making it impossible to leave the country and sometimes even hard to leave the house without permission. In many cases privacyis restricted since the MDWs are not provided their own room while living in their employer’s household. In some cases, they have to share a room with the children, have to sleep in storage rooms or even on the kitchen floor. Even more shocking are the stories about psychological abuse indicated in various reports. Psychological abuse includes shouting at the worker, calling him/her names, and other even more severe degrading and humiliating practices, such as forcing the worker to eat meals from the kitchen floor as one report indicates. It is reported that many workers are not provided proper beds or that they have to perform duties and work regardless that they are sick. Some shocking cases indicate even direct physical abuse such as beatings, kicking and the ripping out of hair as a way of punishment. Sexual abuse seems to be one of the gravest ill-treatments some MDWs have to face. Still it seems to be a wide spread problem as indicated by other research on this issue. The major issue might be that victims of sexual abuse tend to hide their stories because of feeling of humiliation and embarrassment and therefore don’t report to the police. Another problematic aspect seems to be that the MDWs are usually living in the same household with their employer; sometimes even have to sleep in the same room with them which makes the worker extremely vulnerable and leaving little or no protection from sexual assault.

The Vulnerability of Migrant Domestic Workers

Thus the important question arises, “why are MDWs a threatened group which is likely to fall victim to various forms of abuse to such a great extent?”. The answer lies in a combination of several factors that generate a perilous situation for the workers. First of all, almost all MDWs who come to the UK to work there are leaving family behind in the country of their origin. In many dismal cases, the children of these women have to remain back home and to be raised by their aunt or their grandmother. Often, MDWs are forced to leave their country for economic reasons. One worker told us that she was not able to find a job and support by government was so low that it was not possible to provide food for the whole family. The situation is sometimes so dire that starvation threatens families, children can’t attend school because of the tuition fee, and/or crucial medical supplies are not affordable. In these cases, it becomes very understandable why mothers leave their children back at home in order to work abroad. It also provides an explanation for why MDWs who are facing grave abuse by their employer don’t report to police or try to change the job. The burden of being responsible for a sometimes large family keeps the MDWs trapped in extremely exploitative situations. Domestic work is a niche in the labour market that is mostly hidden from governmental control and public view. That is because it takes place in the private sphere behind closed doors. Therefore the common instruments of supervision of working conditions such as labour inspection cannot be applied in this sector. Additionally, most MDWs do not have many social ties in the UK and therefore do not have friends or family to turn to if dismissed by their employer. Even worse: visa regulations usually do not allow the worker to change the employer. Change of employer would mean to stay undocumented in the UK or the option being deported back to their home country.

Slavery-Like Working Conditions

By reviewing the results of the research, it has been concluded that MDWs as a group are highly threatened, vulnerable and ill-treated; and in many cases forced to work under slavery-like conditions. Based on the conclusion of our findings and significant definitions from specialized agencies working in this field, such as Anti-Slavery-International, we suggest a new and extended definition of slavery-like-working-conditions:

  • Lack of knowledge of personal rights
  • Broken working contracts in terms of working hours, payment etc.
  • Payment below the national minimum wage
  • Inability to change the employer
  • Vastly limited free time and working hours exceeding 40 hours a week
  • Sparse social ties and small or no social network
  • Absence of language skills of the host country
  • Fear of deportation or repression by government and uncertain visa status
  • Restricted personal freedom due to prohibition to leave employers house
  • Bad or unhealthy accommodation
  • Inadequate medical care

Those aspects can constitute slavery-like working conditions. NGOs and governments should take these aspects into consideration when dealing with persons working under exploitative conditions.

Challenges ahead

In order to tackle the various problems MDWs have to face in the UK, several approaches should be required:

In a recent press release the European Commission states: “The European Commission welcomes the adoption by the EU’s Council of Ministers of a Decision authorising Member States to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention concerning fair and decent work for domestic workers (Convention No. 189)”.5 The UK is one of the EU member states that has not yet ratified the ILO convention concerning decent work for domestic workers (ILO Convention No. 189).6 The convention is a legal instrument that safeguards fair treatment of domestic workers of various aspects of working conditions.7 The implementation of the ILO convention is one first step to tackle the issue and to assure several basic rights of MDWs.

Since 2012, the UK has acquired new regulations concerning the visa for MDWs. The new visa does not allow the worker the right to change employer. This implies that MDWs working for an abusive employer might easily become undocumented when leaving the household and thus making them vulnerable to other legislation. Before 2012, in the old visa system, workers were granted the right to change the employer. Furthermore, they were allowed after 5 years of working in the UK to apply for settlement.

The importance of NGO work in this particular field could not be overemphasized. As stated above, MDWs commonly lack social ties and financial means for legal aid. In situation of abuse or mistreatment, NGOs step in to support the worker in various aspects. Such important and specialized organisations based in London are Justice for Domestic Workers, Kalayaan, The Passage, Caritas Social Action Network, Unite the Union to name but only a few.8 Besides the “hands on” services they provide for MDWs, they are the driving force when it comes to campaigning to raise awareness on the issue to the wider public. Also as advocacy groups these organisations help to advance legal regulations by building up constant pressure, especially through labour unions. It would be a wise decision for the government to provide more financial means to fund and support such organisations in order to help them further extend their work.

Right now MDWs are for various reasons not covered by several crucial protective regulations concerning working conditions. Those namely are the UK national minimum wage and regulations in regard to working hours and health and safety at work regulations. The ILO convention covers those aspects. However it would to be welcomed if the UK government would besides ratifying the ILO convention extend the range of such protective regulations to vulnerable groups such as MDWs in general.

Although there are a few scientific reports on the situation of domestic workers in the UK, the amount of scientific and academic knowledge is very limited. This is especially true when it comes to quantitative data or scientific knowledge about the situation in other EU member states. It is clear that further research needs to be conducted in order to develop a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon and its dynamics.

Read the report “Modern Slavery in the UK: Hidden Behind Silence. Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Kingdom. Contemporary Bearings, Legal Impediments and Feasible Solutions” (Brigitta Bogardi, Alicia Marie Fawcett, Jakob Kriz) here:


1 British Broadcasting Corporation, ‚US ‚gathering evidence‘ against Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade‘ (British Broadcasting Corporation, London 2013) accessed 1 February 2014
British Broadcasting Corporation, ‚India diplomat Devyani Khobragade indicted in US visa row‘ (British Broadcasting Corporation, London 2014) accessed 1 February 2014
British Broadcasting Corporation, ‚Devyani Khobragade: India seeks US official’s withdrawal‘ (British Broadcasting Corporation, London 2014) < accessed 1 February 2014
Rebecca Smith, ‚Mistreatment of Domestic Worker By Indian Diplomat Is Not Unique‘ (The Huffington Post, 2014) accessed 1 February 2014
2 Marissa Begonia, Migrant Domestic Workers and their Legal Struggles. Accredited Community Empowerment Course: Development and presentation of Research Skills 2011-2012 (Africa Educational Trust & Evelyn Oldfield Unit, London 2012)
Mumtaz Lalani, Ending the Abuse. Policies that work to protect migrant domestic workers.(Kalayaan London, 2011).
Krisnah Poinasamy, ‚Protecting migrant domestic workers in the UK‘ (2011) Vol. 19 No. 1 Gender & Development 95-104.
3 Rita Gava, Vanina Wittenburg, Nivedita Niyogi, Kate Roberts, The New Bonded Labour? The impact of proposed changes to the UK immigration system on migrant domestic workers (Oxfam GB & Kalayaan, London 2008) (Page 10)
4 Ibid. (Page 14)
5 European Commission, ‚European Commission Press Release: Working conditions: time for Member States to implement the ILO domestic workers convention‘ (European Commission, Brussels 2014) accessed 1 February 2014
6 ‚C189 – Domestic Workers Convention 2011 No. 189‘ (International Labour Organization website) accessed 1 February 2014
7 European Commission, ‚Working conditions: time for Member States to implement the ILO domestic workers convention‘ (European Commission, Brussels 2014) accessed 1 February 2014
8 Justice for Domestic Workers, ‚J4DW Homepage‘ accessed 1 February 2014
Kalayaan, ‚Kalayaan Homepage‘ accessed 1 February 2014
The Passage, ‚The Passage Homepage‘ accessed 1 February 2014
Caritas Social Action Network, ‚CSAN Homepage‘ accessed 1 February 2014
Unite the Union, ‚Unite the Union ‚ accessed 1 February 2014


Jakob Kriz  

Studies sociology and psychotherapy in Vienna and is participant of the Wirtschaftspolitischen Akademie 2013/14.


Alicia Marie Fawcett

Student of International and Diplomatic Studies at the University of Economics in Prague. Worked with non-profits, The International Women’s Democracy Center, The Forum 2000, and National Council of Women’s Organisations.


Brigitta Bogardi

Studies international relations and international law at the University of Szeged, in Hungary. Worked for an international institution, dealing with the rights of Hungarian minorities in Serbia.

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