UK Supreme Court allows domestic workers to sue Saudi diplomat despite his claiming immunity

Tom Batchelor
The court said the diplomat and his wife were no longer shielded by immunity because his posting in the UK had finished: Getty

Anti-trafficking campaigners have welcomed a landmark Supreme Court ruling in favour of two domestic workers who claimed to have been the victim of racial harassment and mistreatment while working at the London home of a Saudi diplomat.

The court rejected the claim by Jarallah al-Malki that he and his wife were entitled to diplomatic immunity after the domestic workers took their claims of low pay and poor conditions to an employment tribunal.

The judgment was described as a “major breakthrough” for low-paid domestic workers in diplomatic households in the UK and around the world.

​Cherrylin Reyes, from the Philippines, and Titin Rohaetin Suryadi, from Indonesia, said they were paid less than the national minimum wage, were subjected to unacceptable living and working conditions and faced harassment on the grounds of their race during their employment in 2011. Their allegations are yet to be determined at trial but the Home Office has recognised both women as victims of trafficking.

But Mr and Ms Al-Malki were able to avoid answering the claims after winning an appeal which allowed them to claim diplomatic immunity.

However, in a unanimous Supreme Court ruling handed down on Wednesday, the domestic workers were told they could take their claims to an employment tribunal.

The court said the diplomat and his wife were no longer shielded by immunity because his posting in the UK had finished and because the employment of Ms Reyes was not in the course of his official functions.

The judgment also noted that the exploitation of migrant domestic workers by diplomats was a "significant problem".

Emmy Gibbs, a lawyer for the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU), which was involved in the case, said the ruling was a “major breakthrough [that] is likely to affect the rights of overseas domestic workers working in diplomatic households not just in the UK but also across the world”.

“If the Government hope to lead the fight against modern slavery as they state they do, they must now take steps to champion the rights of victims within the international community,” she told The Independent.

“In the meantime they must ensure that embassies themselves are directly responsible for any wrongs domestic workers suffer at the hands of their diplomat employers.”

Ms Reyes claimed to have been paid $250 (£190) in advance for a month's salary, followed by a payment of £1,000 after a claim was lodged by ATLEU.

The charity said that Ms Reyes worked for more than 17 hours a day, seven days a week, over the course of almost two months, meaning the pay was equivalent to around £1 an hour.

Ms Suryadi says she was paid in two instalments totalling £195 and £238 and was not allowed to leave the house.

Up to 17,000 domestic workers enter the UK each year, predominantly from Africa and Asia, with around 300 employed by diplomats or within foreign embassies.

The majority of these are women and are required to carry out tasks including cleaning, cooking, providing childcare and laundry services.

Male domestic workers are often brought to the UK as drivers, cooks and private security guards.

ATLEU said many domestic workers are employed under a "kafala" arrangement, which is widespread in the Gulf region, and which ties migrant workers to their employers.

They are not permitted to leave their jobs or the country without their employer's permission, an arrangement the charity said “bears the features of modern slavery”.

Avril Sharp, Policy Officer for Kalayaan, a charity that supports migrant domestic workers and which provided evidence in the case, said: “These cases were about access to justice for domestic workers, including those who had been trafficked to the UK and exploited in domestic servitude and forced labour.”

Zubier Yazdani, a lawyer at Deighton Pierce Glynn who represented Kalayaan in court, added: “These successful appeals represent a significant inroad into chipping away at the veil of immunity that has so far shielded diplomats who have trafficked their domestic workers.”

Jakub Sobik, a spokesman for Anti-Slavery International, highlighted the role of European law on the judgment and warned about the impact of Brexit on future cases if “basic rights for everyone in the UK are not be secured during negotiations”.

“Regardless of immigration status and no matter who employs them, vulnerable workers should have a right to bring their claims for compensation to the court, full stop,” he said.

“The case highlights how the deep vulnerability of people who come to this country as domestic workers. If the Government is serious about tackling slavery, it should allow workers greater flexibility leave abusive employers.”

He added that the ruling was likely to “promote the general rule of law across the world”.

“The Modern Slavery Act was introduced in Britain only two years ago, but already a number of countries such as Australia, France, and Switzerland have followed suit and are debating similar legislation,” he said.

The Independent contacted Saudi authorities and the Foreign Office for a comment but had not received a response at the time of publication.