Anne will never forget what it was like living as one of Britain’s hidden slaves. Brought into the country by a Saudi family she believed would look after her, she was forced to work almost every hour of every day. Deprived of her passport, she was terrified if she fled she would be arrested.
Now that brutal existence is over. Since her escape in September from the property in Wandsworth where she was being held, the 44-year-old Filipina has been given somewhere new to live, got a job, and had her first experiences of being in London as a free woman.
“My new employers are lovely,” she says of the elderly couple she now works for. “Before I used to starve as a slave, but now I can eat, and they treat me with respect. It is a big thing for me to be treated as a human being. I am very happy, and grateful to God and to the Evening Standard and everyone who helped me escape. I have been to a restaurant and tried things I have never enjoyed in my life — I can even afford perfume now.”
The woman who helped free her and get her a job was leading anti-slavery campaigner Marissa Begonia, who founded The Voice of Domestic Workers charity, and whose work is being backed by this newspaper as part of its Slaves On Our Streets campaign. She says it is essential that women like Anne receive support, as they often end up confused and frightened in a foreign country.
Anne is still so scared of her previous employers she asked us not to use her real name. Her situation is still precarious, as the family she escaped from have her passport so she has to wait for a two-year visa to keep working here, or be sent back to the Philippines.
In October, the Home Office said it is reforming its National Referral Mechanism to improve help for modern slavery victims like her.
Comment: Tied visa system leaves domestic workers facing abuse
By Avril Sharp
Ministers acknowledge migrant domestic workers are vulnerable to exploitation — yet ignore calls for reform of the Overseas Domestic Worker Visa that would strengthen their rights, prevent abuse and ensure workers are able to access justice.
In 2012 the Government introduced the tied visa system, which meant domestic workers coming to the UK were tied to their employer for a maximum of six months with no right of renewal or extension.
It prohibited workers from changing employers in the UK and in effect prevented them from challenging any abuse. If they did leave their boss, they were in breach of the terms of their visa and at risk of deportation.
Evidence showed abuse was significantly higher for those on a tied visa from those on an original one.
In April 2016, after a long campaign, the Government made limited changes to the visa, accepting that abused and exploited workers should be allowed to leave their employer without becoming criminalised — but only for the term of their six-month visa.
Without the right to renew a visa the measure is meaningless. Workers usually do not have references and often don’t have their passport or visa, which has been withheld by their abusers. This makes them unattractive to prospective employers.
Workers are left with the choice of remaining in an exploitative situation, risking a new one, or jobless, with no access to public funds and at risk of becoming destitute. The law is failing those it ought to protect.
Avril Sharp is policy and casework officer at Kalayaan, a charity that helps overseas domestic workers in the UK.