The UK must protect domestic workers


Later this week, the UN High-level Dialogue (HLD) on International Migration and Development will take place in New York.

Important stakeholders will get together to discuss how global policies on migration can support development and protect the rights of migrant workers, who are often in the most vulnerable positions in the labour market.

We know that the majority of migrants choose to travel out of economic necessity. Some people would rather not migrate, taking valuable skills away from their country of origin, but poverty, instability and a lack of opportunity can drive people to seek employment elsewhere.

Some migrants, like the construction workers enduring slavery-like conditions to build stadia for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, face terrible exploitation in their new countries.

The treatment of domestic workers in the UK provides another stark example. The migrant domestic worker charity Kalayaan has documented the widespread physical, sexual and psychological abuse domestic workers suffer.

Justice 4 Domestic Workers (J4DW) is a self-organised group of domestic workers affiliated to Unite the Union who will be taking part in the HLD. Marissa Begonia, Chair of J4DW, will speak at the UN about the terrible exploitation and abuse many J4DW members have suffered as domestic workers.

Marissa has an impressive record of campaigning at the United Nations for the rights of domestic workers. She was a delegate at the International Labour Conference in 2011 and, with other domestic workers, called for, and succeeded in obtaining, a new ILO Convention on Domestic Workers (C189), asserting their right to decent work and dignity.

Shamefully the Confederation of British Industry voted against this Convention whilst the UK government abstained from voting for it and has so far failed to ratify it.

In fact, UK law made domestic workers even more vulnerable when the Coalition government changed overseas domestic worker visa requirements in 2011.

Domestic workers are now ‘tied’ to one employer, which has dangerous similarities to the ‘Kafala’ system found in Gulf Countries. If they leave their employer due to abuse or exploitation, they have no right to remain in the country, despite the fact many lack the means to return to their country of origin.

J4DW has been lobbying the UK government to end the ‘tied’ worker visa, often using art and design as well as political advocacy.

In the past, J4DW has taken its campaign to both the House of Commons and the Tate Modern art gallery; now it’s made a video which will be featured on the TUC and ITUC websites during the HLD, asking the UK government to provide protection and decent work to domestic workers by ratifying C189 – just as its EU neighbours Germany and Italy have done.

The recognition of international and human rights standards in migration policies is essential to prevent such abuses.

Despite the fact that many states have signed up to international human rights and labour conventions, national policies can directly contravene these commitments.

The UK government, for example, recently announced plans to charge non-EEA migrants upfront fees for non-emergency healthcare.

The TUC has argued that this would contravene the UK’s obligation under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, where the state must ensure access to healthcare for all.

Trade unions around the world are hoping that the UN HLD will provide a framework for states to consider their immigration policies in the context of their international obligations.

This is only the second time that governments and high-level officials have been brought together with trade unions, NGOs and employer groups to discuss migration and development at the UN – the first was in 2006.

Global migration discussions have more regularly taken place through the Global Forum for Migration and Development which has been criticised by trade unions for denying unions and NGOs any formal role and for operating outside of the UN legal framework.

Now discussions on migration are taking place once more at the UN, it is important that governments gathered in New York listen to the voices of migrant workers like J4DW.

There must be recognition that states cannot simply profit from the economic benefits of migrants – they are workers too and must be allowed to claim their rights through unions and be protected by law.


You can watch Justice 4 Domestic Workers’ message for the UK government for the UN HLD here.