modern slavery

I heard enough of today’s Face the Facts (R4) to be shocked by the disregard in which we can hold the lives of human beings from outside the EU.

The programme was reporting on modern slavery in the context of the modern slavery bill currently passing through its various stages in Parliament. The programme noted that the situation for domestic workers coming to the UK from overseas (outside the EEA) had become worse in 2012, when the coalition government further restricted visa conditions for these people. Since then domestic workers (many coming from the Philippines) are allowed into the UK on a ‘tied visa’ that restricts them to working for the employer named on the visa, and for a period of six months only. Women habitually have their passports removed as soon as they arrive at their UK address, and may then be physically and emotionally abused by their employers with impunity. These cases have been well documented previously and yet nothing has been done. If a woman escapes from her employer’s abuses she makes herself an illegal immigrant; likewise when employers keep their slaves beyond the six month term of the visa, the woman concerned is helpless to do anything.

The radio programme today interviewed a previous government whip. He was asked why a proposed amendment, allowing domestic workers to seek similar employment with other employers, and extending the duration of stay to twelve months (with an option for renewal if there is proof of employment) was not passed. He said that the women were victims of the electoral cycle – that the government dared not be seen to be relaxing any minute aspect of immigration control.

The same cynicism was exhibited by David Cameron (reported by Reuters last year) when he declined to make listed companies examine their supply chain for any evidence of slave labour. Money matters more than the rights of individuals – especially if the individuals concerned are relatively uneducated, speak little English and are penniless.

A particularly unpleasant manifestation of domestic slavery is in the households of London’s diplomats. Again women are imprisoned within the house (one woman reported only being allowed out of the house to put the rubbish out, and even then she had to be accompanied by one of the children to ensure that she did not escape), and have their passports removed. Again they are rarely paid, and work savagely long hours with no time off. However, when one of these women managed to escape and speak to the police she was told that there was no UK jurisdiction in a diplomat’s residence. Although a case against the Saudi ambassador was originally found, it was overturned at the court of appeal who clearly stated that good diplomatic relations matter more than the rights of two women.

The programme went on to discuss a group of people who are in an even worse situation than the domestic workers, unbelievable as that seemed to me. These are men, again from outside the EEA, again often Filipino, who come to the UK thinking that they are going to work on fishing boats off the Cornish coast. In reality they end up on boats working off Northern Ireland or the north of Scotland. They receive no training despite this industry being recognised as probably the most dangerous in the UK. One man who was interviewed had been working on the same boat for a year, living in incredibly dirty and cramped conditions. Another man had injured his hand on a winch and was unable to work. He was abandoned on a Scottish quayside, where he was, under the terms of his visa, an illegal immigrant. The men working on these boats are given transit visas, colloquially known as ‘to join ship’ visas because they allow the holder to transit from the point of entry into the UK to the boat that they have been employed to join. Technically the visa also allows them to be on the boat for the twelve miles needed to exit UK waters. Although I had never heard of this exploitation of foreign workers it was been debated in Parliament in 2012. It is clear from the tone of the debate that although individual MPs are honourably trying to effect a change this is not a priority for the government.

Face the facts interviewed a skipper of a Scottish trawler who spoke of the dangerous and difficult conditions under which his crew worked. He talked about their working hours, and emphasised the amount of time off that was necessary because of the nature of the work. He suggested that 30 days continuously on board would represent the limit of endurance for a crew member, and was clearly incredulous that anyone could survive a year. He concluded by saying that these were UK fishing vessels bringing fish to UK shores that was consumed by the UK public. He felt certain that if the UK public knew of the abuses of human rights that were occurring on some ships they would be absolutely horrified.

I could not share his certainty. The reason that all of these human beings are exploited as slaves is because they cost nothing. They provide ultra cheap labour so that others can increase their profits. In the supermarket this is manifest in cheaper food. How many of us want to question that too closely?

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