Ministers look likely to abandon a planned safeguard for some of the UK’s most vulnerable workers after the Home Office told pressure groups it had failed to find a contractor to run meetings to inform overseas domestic workers of their rights.
The Home Office had been planning to introduce the sessions in response to a report by James Ewins, a barrister who is an expert on modern slavery, on the visa system used by around 19,000 domestic workers annually. The visas are issued to domestic staff travelling with overseas employers, a group particularly vulnerable to mistreatment.
Introduction of the meetings was one of two main recommendations in the report, which Mr Ewins delivered in 2015 and which ministers are still working to implement.
Mr Ewins said that any foreign domestic worker staying in the UK for more than 42 days should be required to attend a “group information meeting,” where workers would have their rights under UK law explained.
Several people involved in safeguarding vulnerable workers’ rights, who asked not to be identified, said Home Office officials had told them the meetings proposal was unlikely to be implemented because no contractor was willing to run the sessions.
Workers have a right to the minimum wage, rest days, suitable accommodation and other basic standards.
Mr Ewins said he was “very disappointed” at the suggestion the recommendation would not be implemented.
“I …consider that this represents a failure to safeguard overseas domestic workers, as set out in my report of 2015 and as I understood had been acknowledged by the Home Office,” Mr Ewins said.
Mr Ewins had hoped the meetings would provide an opportunity for abused workers to come forward.
“This will enable those overseas domestic workers who are victims of abuse to be identified as such – probably to self-identify – and will empower them to take practical self-help steps to leave such abuse and will offer them support in doing so,” he wrote in his report.
Around 70 per cent of the workers who come to the UK on the Overseas Domestic Workers’ visa annually come from countries around the Gulf, where labour standards are far lower and domestic staff often poorly treated. Many of the workers are originally from the Philippines.
People working in the field expressed frustration that the meetings programme looked unlikely to be adopted.
“This was a government commitment which they are not fulfilling,” one person involved said.
The Home Office insisted, however, that no final decision on the information sessions had been taken.
“The government is currently involved in a tendering exercise and the details of this remain commercially sensitive,” the Home Office said. “The results of the exercise will be released in due course.”
Mr Ewins’ report was commissioned in response to complaints that a tightening of rules for the visa in 2012 had made holders more vulnerable to exploitation. Under the rules, workers were restricted to a six-month stay in the UK and allowed to work only for the employer who originally sponsored their visa. Campaigners complained that the rules left abused workers with no practical option to escape abuse.
The Home Office has since given workers the right to switch employers during their stay. But campaigners say that, in practice, no-one is willing to take on workers for the very short periods allowed under the six-month visa limit.