Am I a modern slave?

Lyn Caballero describes her experiences as a migrant domestic worker and explains why domestic workers are campaigning for immigration policy change

September 24, 2020 · 9 min read
Members of The Voice of Domestic Workers (VODW) on a protest. Photo: The Voice of Domestic Workers

In 2016, the UK government vowed to end the ‘barbaric evil of modern slavery’ and trafficking. In 2018, however, I came here on a visa for domestic workers in a private household, which is valid for six months and cannot be renewed. Left unprotected, I’ve been refused safety and may be prosecuted.

My story began in March 2015, when I started looking at domestic worker positions in Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia. Leaving my children was the most painful decision of my life, but I saw working abroad as an opportunity to support them so they could have a better life. My salary as a call centre worker in the Philippines was very low, around £194 per month. The work was seasonal, so I had no steady wage. My goal was to buy my own house, send my children to school and help my mother who is elderly.

I was offered a position in Saudi Arabia working eight hours per day, six days a week, for around £361 per month. However, the family ignored the contract terms, expecting me to work almost 24 hours per day, seven days a week. I took breaks lying on the stairs but if someone was coming I would stand up quickly, so I would not be reprimanded. Even if I was sick I had to continue, cleaning the house from top to bottom and doing the cooking, laundry and ironing.

After a month, I was transferred to my employer’s daughter. I lost a lot of weight because of how I was treated there. If I forgot anything I would be verbally abused. The family also accused me of stealing my employer’s daughter’s phone, threatening to call the police. I could not eat properly because I was scared I would be imprisoned. I had heard that the Saudi government cut the hands off people who committed crimes. When the children eventually found the phone in the house, I received no apology.

After complaining to the agency, I was transferred again but at the next household I received the worst treatment of all. I was called ‘kansera’ (Arabic for ‘pig’), ‘hayawan’ (‘animal’) and ‘majnun’ (‘mad person’). My employer would also slap my arm and poke my head. I would go to sleep around 1.30am and resume work at 5am – an almost 24-hour working day. I saw no way out of my two-year contract because I was scared of the family and I could send money to my children. They also kept my passport.

When my contract was about to end, my employer sold me to another family about to move to the UK. I agreed to work for them, provided I could return home to see my children first. They held two weeks of my salary so I would return.

On returning to Saudi, my employer asked me to apply for a visa at the British embassy in Riyadh. I had no chance to read the documents before signing, or even see my new visa because my employer kept my passport.

Police intervention and VODW

I came to the UK in August 2018 with my employer and her three children. Here, I only had to work 13 hours per day, but had no days off. The children needed full-time attention. Unaware of my rights, I thought these hours and my small salary were normal here, because the suffering and abuse were the same as I had experienced in Saudi. I couldn’t ask people because I was not allowed to talk to anyone; my every step was monitored. The thought of being sold again and other people harming me was frightening.

One day, the police approached me at the children’s school, requesting that I come to the station to answer some questions. Someone had told them I was being abused. I told them I couldn’t stay long because my employer would expect me. I told them everything about the treatment by my employer. They told me about the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a framework for identifying potential victims of modern slavery and trafficking and referring them to the Single Competent Authority (SCA). Victims can stay in the UK for up to two years. I asked myself, ‘Am I a slave? Or a modern slave?’ They set up another meeting at the school, then questioned me further at the station. After five days, the police informed me that I had received a positive ‘reasonable grounds’ decision on my NRM case, meaning I could stay in the UK while my case was ongoing. They helped me gather my belongings from my employer’s house and brought me a mobile phone so I could call my family.

The police put me in contact with The Voice of Domestic Workers (VODW), a grassroots group for migrant domestic workers campaigning for our rights and welfare. VODW provides English, IT, wellness and life skills training courses in London’s Unite union building. Every Sunday we gather to share our stories and eat together as a family. Many of my fellow domestic workers have become undocumented because of policies introduced in 2012 preventing us from changing employers and renewing our visas.

I found a new employer that paid only two weeks’ salary for a month’s work. Knowing this was not right, I continued looking and found an employer who pays £450 per week for 15 hours a day, six days a week. I know this is still not okay but at the very least I have a day off.

I spend my days off volunteering as the leader of VODW’s media and communication working group. We produce videos and a monthly newsletter raising awareness of our cause, guided by a kind and supportive volunteer, Aimee Laurel. We also meet online after work every Saturday evening. I am happy to be able to contribute to VODW so the conditions of migrant domestic workers can improve.

Lockdown: the struggle intensifies

When the lockdown started in March, I became lonely and traumatised again. My employer threatened me, telling me if I left the house, ‘Do not come back!’ I had no choice but to stay in my employer’s household, or else be jobless and homeless. For two months I worked unpaid; my employer couldn’t withdraw money from the bank and has now deducted £200 from my monthly salary. To continue supporting my family, I am working 105 hours a week – including during my days off – for £400, or £3.80 per hour.

The isolation has increased my trauma as it reminds me of my abusive situation in Saudi, where I would watch people passing by from the window. I wonder when I can go out. Thankfully, at least once a week I can see my fellow domestic workers and tutors during VODW’s online classes and we share our situations and learn together.

I recently received a negative conclusive decision in my NRM case. I am scared if I overstay I will be arrested and deported back home unprepared financially and unstable emotionally and mentally. Fellow domestic workers in my situation have become undocumented. We have tried to be lawful but it seems there is fire wherever we step.

Where are these ‘three Ps’ (prevention, protection and prosecution) of the Modern Slavery Act? Why am I at risk of prosecution, not the employer who abused me?

Domestic workers’ passports are stamped ‘No recourse to public fund’, denying us access to state benefits – including furlough. The £35 per week I previously received from the government was cut off when my NRM application was denied. It is VODW’s Covid-19 hardship fund that has supported me. This crisis continues, and I urge people to continue supporting our fund for the many migrant domestic workers who have lost their jobs or salaries and face destitution.

VODW has submitted a petition to the government. We need 100,000 signatures for a parliamentary debate, revealing our conditions and how the system facilitates modern slavery and trafficking. The UK refuses to ratify the International Labour Organisation Domestic Workers Convention, despite claiming to be a global leader against these crimes. We are powerless against abusive employers because the law enables them to abuse us.

Domestic workers are workers, caring for children, elderly people and the households of families across the world. We demand basic rights. We have fought for too long.

Lyn Caballero is a migrant domestic worker and campaigner with The Voice of Domestic Workers. This article originally appeared in issue #229 ‘No Return to Normal’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.

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