Residents of Notting Hill, one of London’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, laugh and chat as they collect Christmas trees from the local churchyard. They are oblivious to a nearby group of women huddled together in the cold, waiting to enter a Filipino language mass. The women are domestic workers. All have suffered serious abuse at the hands of their Saudi, Jordanian and Qatari employers while staying in exclusive neighbourhoods across London.
The weekly service is a chance for the women to meet and support either other. Swapping experiences, they describe five-star hotels on the edge of Hyde Park where – surrounded by the ostentatious trappings of wealth – they would be left starving and without money for days on end.
Adele*, 34, comes from the Philippine province of Cavite. She took a job in Saudi Arabia, despite the possibility of mistreatment – a risk widely acknowledged in the Filipino community – because her family desperately needed the money. All the women have dependants at home, many of them young children who are being cared for by relatives.
When her wealthy Saudi employer told her she would be travelling to London, she was taken to an office. Her employer told her to sign documents for a visa. She was given no chance to read them.
“The secretary of the boss took us to the building – they never, ever told us where we were going. I tried to read the papers but our employer said, ‘You are a slave. You don’t have the right to read it.’”
Once in the UK, the abuse she had suffered in Saudi Arabia became even more severe.
“Every day I had to go to Hyde Park, with the children, until 10 at night. I was given no money or food. I had five pounds for the little girls’ lunch but, if I asked for myself, she would just shout at me or give me one biscuit to eat. I was always cold and hungry. It was the worst experience of my life.
Adele is one of nearly 17,000 people, mainly women, who come to Britain on an overseas domestic worker visa each year to work for foreign visitors to the UK. Two-thirds of these visa applications are made in Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where human rights abuses against domestic workers have become deeply entrenched under the kafala system.
Until 2012, overseas domestic workers had the right to change jobs and extend their work visa in the UK, but that changed when the coalition government introduced a visa tying them to their employer. A series of reports and parliamentary committees has criticised this “tied visa”, warning that it traps vulnerable women in abusive situations.
The Home Office argues that any victim of trafficking can enter the National Referral Mechanism, the official process for identifying and supporting victims of trafficking. But the women at the church fear this will only lead to them being deported back to the Philippines. The standard recovery time for people who are identified as trafficking victims in the UK is 45 days, although domestic workers can be given six months.
While she talks, Adele has been laughing, joking with the other women about the crazy demands made by her employers, the abuse and the offensive language. But she begins to cry when talking about the risk that she will be removed from the UK. “Oh my god, I am smiling now but I have cried so much thinking about being sent back to the Philippines. I am under such big financial pressure in the Philippines … sometimes I think it would be better to stay as an undocumented migrant so that I could work and send money home.”
Meanwhile, Marie* has been waiting to tell her story, tears rolling down her face. She is 24, and left home when she was only 17, lying about her age to get work in Qatar.
Marie says she also signed visa papers without knowing what they were, in Qatar. “I didn’t want to come here at all. I went to the British embassy and they asked me my age. I told them and they said, ‘Sign this.’ I was with the driver of my employer so he spoke to the staff. I had to sign without reading it.”
She pulls up her sleeve to show a burn mark. “I worked for an elderly woman. She calls me crazy, tells me I am a dog and a whore. One day she wanted me to iron clothes but, when I said I was waiting for the iron to heat up, she took it and pressed it on my hand.”
She eventually ran away because the abuse became so severe she feared for her life. But she is terrified of the police and isn’t yet ready to approach the authorities. She has been sleeping on friends’ floors for several months, relying on handouts to survive. This is her first visit to the Filipino church.
The president of the Filipino Domestic Workers’ Association, Phoebe Dimacali, uses the church service as a gathering point, hoping that women who are being abused will find their way to her through community networks.
“Filipinos look out for the church. There has been a service here for 10 years, so often they find us here.”
Since a law change denied these women the right to work if they leave their employer, Dimicali has stopped the rescue operations she used to carry out in Hyde Park, where she would slip messages to Filipino women as they looked after their employers’ children.
“Before the tied visa was implemented we used to go and talk to the other nannies in Hyde Park and persuade them to run away. Now, we don’t.
“If someone is really desperate and comes to us, we have to explain what will happen to them [if they flee from their employer]. We have to say that it will be very difficult, they will find it hard to get medical treatment, to use the NHS, it [will be] hard to find somewhere to stay because the landlord will want to see their papers. If they want to get help as a victim of trafficking then we can help them with that, but the system is complex. We don’t know how the Home Office make their decisions.”
Dimacali says that many of the women are too frightened to enter the NRM system, because they know that once they have left their employer they have no right to be in the UK. “Last week a woman got a positive decision identifying her as a victim of trafficking, and with the letter was a notice telling her she had 14 days to leave the UK. The women hear this and it frightens them. They are very vulnerable and they need more time and support.”
In his independent review of the overseas domestic worker visa, commissioned by the Home Office, barrister James Ewins says the inherent “position of special vulnerability” of migrant workers in domestic households means the tied visa is incompatible with protecting them from abuse. He proposes allowing domestic workers to stay in the UK for up to two and a half years if they leave their employer.
All the women at the church say they knew before leaving the Philippines aboutthe risk they face in Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia. Dimacali pulls out her phone to bring up Facebook pages where Filipinos share news articles detailing abuse.
“Every day on Facebook you hear terrible stories from the Gulf. Someone was pushed [from] a window last week, or you hear someone has an iron put on their leg. Life in the Philippines is really hard. Even if we know that life in the Gulf is really risky we take that risk and hope we won’t be one of those victims.”
* Names have been changed