Swimming Against the Tide of History – Domestic Workers
On Monday DFID launched its ‘Work in Freedom Programme’ – an important initiative which will be aimed at promoting, education, fair recruitment, safe migration and decent work in South Asia and the Middle East. In particular it is aimed at those South Asians who take-up employment in the Middle East. Unfortunately many are subject to abuse and some of whom are trafficked. The programme however is aimed at two specific sectors of the economy, domestic work and textiles.
The irony was not lost on many present that while International Development Minister, Lynn Featherstone, rightly acknowledged the inherent vulnerability of domestic workers; the British government was one of the only two EU governments to abstain in the vote on the ILO convention on Domestic Workers. In the subsequent question and answer session it got too much for one of my colleagues not to pose the question – would not this important initiative carry more weight if the UK ratified the convention.
Ms Featherstone, plainly discomforted, trotted out the British Government’s position. The convention would undoubtedly benefit domestic workers in other countries but it was unnecessary in the UK because we have so many laws protecting domestic workers. Somewhat losing the plot she went on to say the new Domestic Migrants Visa provided additional protection. This new visa actually removes the previous right of Migrant Domestic Workers to change employers as an escape route from abuse. She then went on to say the adoption of the convention would mean some complicated and disproportionate changes to health and safety law. I suggest she looks one of the domestic workers that have suffered abuse in the UK in the eyes and tells them it’s all too complicated!
Slowly but surely other countries are ratifying the convention. In the EU, Italy and Germany have ratified and it would seem many more will follow – one assumes it is not all too complicated for them! Last month we have also had the decision of the Council of the Europe Union authorising member states to ratify the convention in the interests of the EU. Does the British Government really want to hold out as an island of reaction in a more enlightened EU?
Sadly, there is plenty of evidence, from a wide range of issues, to suggest they might be perfectly happy to put the UK in that position. Nevertheless, I would urge the Government to think again and ratify the convention – giving greater protection to one of the most vulnerable groups of workers in our society. The only real impediment to ratification is the lack of political will!