‘Am I Free Now?’ Overseas Domestic Workers in Slavery

AuthorVirginia Mantouvalou
Date01 September 2015
Published date01 September 2015
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 329±57
`Am I Free Now?' Overseas Domestic Workers in Slavery
Virginia Mantouvalou*
This article examines United Kingdom overseas domestic worker and
diplomatic domestic worker visas in place since 2012. These visas tie
workers to an employer by making it unlawful for them to change
employer, even when seriously exploited or abused. The article
presents the findings of a qualitative study of overseas domestic
workers, exploring how this vulnerable and difficult (for researchers)
to reach group experience these visas in practice. Workers reported
instances of exploitation and abuse by the employers with whom they
arrived in the United Kingdom. Having escaped, they have become
undocumented, and are trapped in ongoing cycles of exploitation. The
article assesses what light this empirical exploration sheds on the
question of whether the visa is contrary to the prohibition of slavery,
servitude, forced and compulsory labour in article 4 of the European
Convention on Human Rights and the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015.
[The employers] did not give me to eat. Only once a day, limited food. I was
hungry. That is why I said I made a sacrifice: you need to work, you sacrifice
(Geraldine, overseas domestic worker)
Why would anyone in a society that values freedom feel required to
sacrifice the satisfaction of basic needs in order to work? Should a liberal
*UCL Faculty of Laws, Bentham House, Endsleigh Gardens, London WC1H
0EG, England
I am grateful for comments to Katerina Akestoridi, Einat Albin, Harry Arthurs, Diamond
Ashiagbor, Kristin Bakke, Nigel Balmer, Alan Bogg, Hugh Collins, Nicola Countouris,
Rita Gava, Catherine Kenny, George Letsas, Wanjiru Njoya, Kate Roberts, Alvaro
Santos, Karan Singh, Cheryl Thomas, Philomila Tsoukala, Charlie Webb, and to all
participants in seminars at Queen's University in Canada, the CTLS, the University of
Oxford, UCL, and the London Labour Law Discussion Group.
ß2015 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2015 Cardiff University Law School
state tolerate such a situation? With these questions in the background, in
this article I explore the United Kingdom's overseas domestic worker
(ODW) and diplomatic domestic worker visas in place since 2012, which
tie workers to an employer by making it unlawful for them to change
employer, even if they have been seriously exploited or abused. It has been
suggested that these visas create situations of vulnerability that may lead to
grave restrictions on freedom, which can also be classified as slavery or
Nevertheless, the Modern Slavery Act that received royal assent
in 2015 left the visa regime intact, even though it had become a crucial
political issue and severe criticisms had been expressed at various stages of
the parliamentary debates.
The House of Commons rejected an amend-
ment to the Bill, proposed in the House of Lords which would have
protected migrant domestic workers admitted to the United Kingdom under
the ODW and diplomatic visas. Baroness Butler-Sloss called the proposed
amendment `almost blackmail',
because of the perceived risk that the Bill
would be entirely blocked as a result of the disagreement between the two
Houses on the issue of the amendment to the ODW visa. Eventually,
however, the Bill was passed, leaving the domestic worker visa unreformed
in spite of a Commons amendment, and therefore leaving these workers
exposed to exploitation owing to their inability to quit and find another
The Modern Slavery Act 20 15 codifies and consolida tes existing
offences, increases sentences for most serious offenders, introduces Slavery
and Trafficking Prevention and Risk Orders, sets up the institution of an
Anti-Slavery Commissioner, contains some provisions on protection of
victims, and includes a section on businesses and transparency in global
supply chains. The question to be examined here is whether the failure to
include any significant reform to the domestic worker visa regime in the Act
leads to the conclusion that, ironically, it in fact preserved rather than
eradicated one instance of slavery.
For the purposes of the present article, I undertook a qualitative study,
conducting a series of semi-structured interviews of overseas domestic
1 B. Anderson, Britain's Secret Slaves: Migrant Domestic Workers in the UK (1993);
C. Costello, `Migrants and Forced Labour' in The Autonomy of Labour Law, eds. A.
Bogg et al.; J. Fudge and K. Strauss, `Migrants, Unfree Labour and the Legal
Construction of Domestic Servitude' in Migrants at Work, eds. C. Costello and M.
Freedland (2014); V. Mantouvalou, `What Is to Be Done for Migrant Domestic
Workers?' in Labour Migration in Hard Times, ed. B. Ryan (2013).
2 See Joint Committee on Draft Modern Slavery Bill, Draft Modern Slavery Bill, HL
166 (2013±14) HC 1019, 100; Public Bill Committee, 14 October 2014; 757 H.L.
Debs., cols. 1853 ff. (10 December 2014); 759 H.L. Debs., cols. 1689 ff. (25
February 2015); 594 H.C. Debs., cols. 645 ff. (17 March 2015); and, finally, 760
H.L. Debs., cols. 1426 ff. (25 March 2015).
3 id. (25 March 2015), col. 1436.
ß2015 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2015 Cardiff University Law School

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