Trafficking in Domestic Work

Trafficking in Domestic Work

Alexandra Ricard-Guay, European University Institute

4 May 2015

Over the last weeks, the Modern Slavery Act in the UK has gathered a lot of attention, and has put the issue of domestic work into public debate

The new legislation maintains the controversial system of tied-visas that was introduced in 2012. This means that a domestic worker coming to the UK is bonded to one employer only, and cannot change employer without losing the legal status to stay and work. This limits greatly a fundamental right for workers to leave an abusive employment situation. The type of system tying the worker to one employer has been criticized by UK-based organizations, such as Kalayaan. It increases the vulnerability to abuse by reinforcing the worker’s dependence on their employer, as well as exacerbating the power imbalance between employer and employee. Kalayaan has documented that after the introduction of the tied visa in 2012, there was an increase of abuses as well as a fewer numbers of workers coming forward to report those situations to authorities.

One exception is included under the new law. Domestic workers that are officially identified as victims of trafficking –through the Government’s National Referral Mechanism - will be eligible for a work visa of 6 months. In other words, there is a small and constrained ‘window’ of protection, but only for those who formally fit the definition of trafficking, and whose mal-treatment corresponds to a severity of exploitation that adds up to trafficking. This could have a collateral effect of antagonizing or widening the divide between, on one side, labour rights abuses of migrant workers, and, on the other side, the cases of extreme exploitation and slavery. Worse. This bears the risk of dividing between deserving and undeserving migrant workers.

If we transpose some of this discussion to a more global level, it touches the question of potential of double-edged impact of the recent increased attention toward trafficking on migrant workers’ rights. While the fight against ‘modern-day slavery’ appears to rally Governments strongly and unanimously, the shortcomings of the legal framework regulating domestic work, the working and living conditions, are not addressed.

Based on our study on the demand-side of trafficking in domestic work in Europe (part of the DemandAT project:, we see that this form of trafficking has not come yet under the radar of government in most countries. There are very few cases of abuses and exploitation in domestic work identified as trafficking, and even fewer that make it through to prosecution or conviction.

This is despite the fact that domestic work as a sector has seen significant growth and visibility in recent years and also despite increased attention to trafficking generally. Many reasons may help explain why the invisibility of trafficking within domestic work prevails.

It is of course in part due to its unique work setting: a private household which enables abuses to go unseen and hampers labour inspections and labour law enforcement.

Also, the criminal offence of trafficking – and especially trafficking that is not sexual exploitation - is quite new. Police and prosecutors may still be unfamiliar, and sometimes reluctant, to make criminal charges.

In addition, this phenomenon is still poorly understood. Different notions are used interchangeably: trafficking for domestic slavery, domestic servitude, forced labour or labour exploitation. Those different concepts reflect that domestic work occupies a particular position: at the junction of private and public spheres, of family and market. Thus, it may fall under two distinct domains:  employment/ labour sector and/or family/ private sector – as it can occur both either within a work arrangement and employment contract or within a private/family based relationships (i.e. spouses in arranged/forced marriage or a situation in which a child is being placed in a foster family). Addressing trafficking though those multiple facets is a challenge. A first step would require bringing definitional clarity and a better understanding of the issue.

It is yet to be seen if the increased concern toward trafficking and slavery – and particularly with the shift toward greater inclusion of labour exploitation - will translate itself into a better understanding of trafficking in domestic work.

In sum, there is a disjunction – a contrast - between the displayed outrage to end modern-day slavery and the prevailing invisibility of trafficking in domestic work, as well as prevailing sub-standard working conditions faced by domestic workers in most European countries. Policies and legislation regulating domestic work are certainly not the only pieces in the puzzle to tackle trafficking. However, appropriate safeguard and protection mechanisms along the entire continuum of exploitation are necessary.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily express the views of the DemandAT project consortium as whole.