Migrant domestic workers and COVID-19: A call to action

The experience of domestic workers in the UK

As the streets of London started clearing out with the impending lockdown, Gracia made her way to her employer’s house. The 46-year-old Filipino woman had been working as a domestic worker with a Turkish family for the last three years. Having arrived in the UK in 2013, Gracia has been supporting four of her children in the Philippines by sending part of her salary back home every month. However, this month would be different. As Gracia went in expecting a normal day of work, she was instead greeted with the news that her services had been suspended indefinitely.

A similar fate unfolded for 26-year-old Jenny. A live-in nanny, she was asked to pack her stuff and leave. “I wasn’t told if the lay-off was temporary or permanent,” Jenny states. I see her trying to hold back tears through the pixelated frame of Zoom. Jenny has found refuge at a friend’s house but is worried about not being able to send money back home. “My salary supports my ageing parents in the Philippines. Coronavirus is devastating,” she adds.

As the COVID-19 situation escalates over the world, Jenny and Gracia are not the only ones to have lost jobs. Many vulnerable communities including migrant domestic workers have been impacted.

“My employer’s business has been affected. They can no longer afford to pay me,” adds Gracia. “They could have at least given me a month’s salary to figure out things,” she adds. Her feelings resonate with 34-year-old Rosie, a part-time domestic worker who lost her job when she complained about a mild headache to her boss a few days ago. “I went home that day to rest. I had no other symptoms and was feeling perfectly fine the next day. My employers did not want to risk it and fired me without any pay or assurance.” Worried about exhausting her meagre savings, Rosie is anxious that she may not have access to any medicines if she does get infected.

38-year-old Lindy, who formerly worked in the Gulf as a domestic worker, is a survivor of physical abuse in her previous workplace. She currently works in London as a carer for an elderly Arab man and has been given strict orders not to leave her house or else she may lose her job. Connecting with me online from her employer’s house during a break, she talks in hushed tones. “Although my current employers are much better than my previous ones, they can sometimes be verbally abusive, which is a constant reminder of my past experiences. I am scared that it might happen again and will have nowhere to escape,” she says. After a brief pause, she smiles and adds, “I am at the mercy of my employers, but am thankful that I still have my job.”

Josephine, a live-in domestic worker, has not had the liberty of breaks ever since she started to isolate. “Now that I have to stay in all the time, I am expected to be available at their beck and call. Overworked and underpaid, she feels worried about her unwell son back in the Philippines. “I have not been able to go to the bank and send my son any money,” she adds. It is a known fact that isolation can often trigger and severely affect mental health. Many more migrant domestic workers are having to isolate in toxic workspaces.

The Voice of Domestic Workers

As difficult as the situation may seem; this is not the first set of challenges that threaten the livelihoods of Jenny, Gracia, Rosie and many others. All three have worked under abusive employers and toxic workspaces and were rescued by the Voice of Domestic Workers (VDW), a self-organised group of migrant domestic workers aiming to improve the lives and livelihoods of their community. Formed in 2009 and established as a charity in 2017, the group has over 1,000 members from Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia with the largest cohort being Filipino women.

The VDW organises several activities, talks and events for migrant domestic workers to attend and learn more about their rights. Image Source

“Migrant domestic workers are a vulnerable group, comprising largely of women who face the gendered impact of bordering,” states Marissa Begonia, who came to the UK from the Philippines in 2004. She is a founding member and the coordinator of VDW, who herself has had experiences of racial fetishisation and exploitation. Initially, working extremely long hours for a meagre monthly salary of £400 after rent deduction, Marissa escaped several difficult work conditions and harassing employers.

“I remember one elderly man, for whom I used to work as a carer, asked me to come into his room late at night and touched me inappropriately. I hit him and immediately resigned,” she adds, crediting her own will power and support from Unite the Union. The dynamic 50-year-old is leading the campaign to appeal for funds amidst the pandemic and has helped organise my virtual interaction with distressed domestic workers online. “I am in a privileged position. All these women came to the UK after 2012 when the visa regimes changed for the worse and are particularly feeling threatened,” she adds.

Marissa Begonia has been actively working as the coordinator of the VDW. Image Source

Migrant domestic workers from outside the EU are granted an Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visa to join their employer in the UK. However, the ODW visa is tied to a specific employer, increasing the vulnerability of workers to exploitation in the UK. Moreover, the visa is granted only for a maximum of 6 months with no right to renewal beyond this time. In 2016, this was amended to safeguard the rights of domestic workers and allow them an escape route. Now, domestic workers can change employers but only during their six-month period. However, this is ineffective in practice given workers have little or no time left to find work. Marissa states that “the only way to be granted an extension of leave and the right to work is by being identified as potential victims of trafficking or modern slavery through the National Referral Mechanism, a case working unit within the Home Office. However, given the vagueness of the laws, it is very difficult to do so.”

A survey conducted by VDW during August 2018 with 539 migrant domestic workers with a variety of immigration statuses revealed that “77% experienced physical, verbal or sexual abuse; 51% reported that they were not given enough food at work; 61% were not given their private room in employers’ houses and the majority were paid below the national minimum wage — receiving between £300 — £400 while working 60–80 hours per week.” Several migrant domestic workers that VDW has rescued, including Gracia and Jenny, do not have their passports as they have been withheld by former employers.

It pains Marissa when domestic workers are referred to as ‘low-skilled’ workers. “We help children with their school work, help clean the house and make food for not just the family, but also their social gatherings that see more than 100 people, we are adept and care and nursing work. How can we still be low-skilled?” she asks.

To tackle the heightened risk of modern-day slavery, VDW has been actively running campaigns to amend the current visa to reinstate it to the pre-2012 regime. They also run English classes on Sundays, and provide counselling and legal advice which has been moved online in the light of the current outbreak. Their COVID-19 fundraiser also aims to deliver these services online as well as supporting migrant domestic workers in distress. These include not just those who have lost their jobs, but also those who have been isolating in unhealthy or abusive work conditions.

Migrant domestic workers at the Worker’s Day Rally in London, 2016. Image Source 

No to Slavery

While it is imperative to amend immigration policies and safeguard the interests of domestic workers, there is a need for community-focused rehabilitative schemes. The UK Government on March 20th announced that the “state would pay grants covering up to 80% of the salary of workers if companies kept them on their payroll, rather than lay them off.” However, according to Marissa domestic workers will not be included in this group as most of them are privately employed. As Analiza Kjaer, an immigration and employment solicitor of Able Law, states, “since some (or the majority of) migrant workers are not officially registered as employees, employers cannot demand the HMRC funds to be able to pay their domestic help.”

As the VDW continue to look into schemes that might aid migrant domestic workers, they feel that their funding appeal may be the only way to support those who have lost their jobs or those who continue isolating in unhealthy environments. They urge everyone who can afford to help to donate to their cause.

You may check out the campaign here and donate to the campaign via this link.

To find out more about the work of ‘The Voice of Domestic Workers’, click here.

The last names of migrant domestic workers interviewed for this story have been withheld to protect their identity.


Devyani Nighoskar is an independent journalist from India reporting on development, culture and identity. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Critical Media and Cultural Studies from SOAS, University of London. She tweets @dnighoskar.

Image credit: Migrant domestic workers at the Worker’s Day Rally in London, 2016. Image Source