London , United Kingdom

Putting Justice to Work for Domestic Caregivers


January 20, 2011

Justice and rights education for migrant domestic workers

Wanted: Caregiver for 24-hour on call service. Live-in. No time off. Restricted privacy and freedom of movement. Wages at less than minimum wage, non-negotiable.

Unfortunately for tens of thousands of domestic workers world-wide, this job description could be their own. In cities as modern as London, Vancouver or Lyons, domestic workers continue to find themselves in situations “disconnected to the millennia” as one concerned London neighbour described it.

Women like Rose, for example, had her passport immediately taken from her by her employer and against her will when she arrived in the UK from Africa to work as a nanny. Powerless and facing verbal and physical abuse, Rose was deprived of humane living and working conditions until she was able to escape with the help of a kind neighbour and seek assistance from Kalayaan, a registered charity that has provided advocacy and support services in the UK for migrant domestic workers since 1987.

Each year, more than 16,500 domestic worker visas are issued in the UK, and their recipients come to work as housekeepers, nannies, gardeners or cooks. While many of these workers are treated well, their isolation increases their dependence on their employers and contributes to a lack of understanding of their rights, leaving them open to potential abuse. Kalayaan is currently the only organization in the UK providing support services to migrant domestic workers.

Improving quality of life…

Kalayaan recognizes that domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitative practices and can face physical and psychological abuse, discrimination, low pay and long hours. Migrant domestic workers often they speak little or no English and are made vulnerable by dependence on an employer for information about their job, their housing and their immigration status.

Kalayaan works with migrant domestic workers to overcome these barriers and improve their quality of life through free and confidential advice on immigration and employment, support in retrieving passports from employers, assistance in accessing healthcare and mainstream services, and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) courses, as well as practical emergency assistance to workers who have recently left abusive employers.

Kalayaan also serves as a social space where clients can come and meet friends, organize workers with Unite the Union, have tea or coffee, and pick up mail. Located behind the St Francis of Assisi church in Notting Hill, West London, two main rooms provide refuge, English classes and office space where hundreds of new domestic workers register each year.

From April 2008 to the end of March 2009, 356 new migrant domestic workers registered at Kalayaan and approximately 1,000 formal advice sessions were given to new and existing service users. Kalayaan also serves as a sanctuary for workers who have recently left abusive employers.

“When workers come to us it is often the first time they have told their story to anyone,” Camilla Brown, Kalayaan’s community advocate, says. “They are very afraid, very emotional, and find it hard to trust that we are not part of the same system as their employers. Most believe that they are illegal.” Brown mentions, “A lot of the first couple of sessions is telling people that they don’t need to be afraid any more.”

A work in progress…

Kalayaan actively campaigns for justice for migrant domestic workers. Changing abusive practices is especially challenging when the worker has little status and no profile, and the employer is powerful. Last year, for example,  Kalayaan identified over 20 cases of alleged trafficking involving diplomatic missions in London alone, a situation that received massive media coverage when exposed.  In spite of its effort’s to work with the police and the Home Office to raise awareness that it is illegal to take a worker’s passport, Kalayaan recorded an increase of 27% (from the previous year) of workers reporting that their passports have been seized by employers.

In many of these cases the workers have little knowledge of their immigration status and rights in the UK. Kalayaan efforts to actively promote a better understanding of worker rights and immigration information includes reaching out to migrant domestic workers, as well as to employers and the larger community.

Kalayaan also regularly conducts research to support its mission and policy goals. It has collaborated with Oxfam and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to request that the Low Pay Commission amend the National Minimum Wage legislation.  Brown says. “We want to remove any doubt about domestic workers’ entitlement to access this basic protection.”

Kalayaan was one of five organizations identified by the Trust for London to inform its special initiative (2007-2010) on tackling forms of ‘modern day slavery’, including people trafficking. Each organisation provided a particular area of expertise whether it be adults, children, domestic workers or women in sexual exploitation. The Trust released its final report for this important work in December 2010: A Chance to be Free: Tackling Modern Day Slavery.

In partnership with COMPAS at Oxford University, Kalayaan recently researched the living and working conditions of migrant eldercare workers in private households (2009). They explored the ways in which these workers negotiate their employment and social relationship with their care user; the impact of race and racism on their experiences of employment; and make recommendations to promote the inclusion and greater support of migrant care workers.

This research was funded by the Big Lottery Fund, which also organizes outreach events with Kalayaan, including a series of one-day photography workshops providing migrant domestic workers with basic training in the use of digital cameras to help express their life narratives. Other sources of funding and support include Trust for London (formerly City Parochial Trust), Henry Smith Charity, Oak Foundation, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Tudor Trust, and the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

High Standards

Kalayaan is registered with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, meaning that the standard of its services is regularly monitored and has scope to affect change in UK policy and research sectors. Kalayaan is also providing critical insight to the UK Border Agency as a member of its steering group on overseas domestic workers.

The organization is creating change from the ground up, improving living and working standards for individual migrant domestic workers in the UK and earning the recognition it deserves. In December 2010, Kalayaan’s significant achievements were recognized with a Guardian Charity Award.

“I’m so thankful for having them in my life,” says J, a Filipina domestic worker who escaped physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her employer. “They gave me the confidence I needed.”

Making it Work for You:

  • Organizations like Kalayaan have the courage to advocate for a large, but largely invisible community. Are there groups in your community that need your support to help build their public profile?
  • Rights abuses usually occur in legal frameworks. Understanding the core legal issues in your sector or subject area will help you make your case more convincingly.
  • Vulnerable parties can become silent victims of their situation or their own insecurity. Listen carefully so you do not miss an opportunity to offer assistance or support.
  • Look for collaborative partnerships that can enrich and extend the reach of your work without pulling you away from your core work.
  • Let someone else conduct the research and then make sure the findings are accessible enough to meet your communication needs. Clear language and practical recommendations will trump a 50-page document every time.


For this Good Idea contact:

Camilla Brown , Kalayaan, Community Advocate and Support
St Francis of Assisi Community Centre
13 Hippodrome Place
London, United Kingdom,
W11 4SF

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