Breaking the silence about migrant workersMigrant domestic workers face challenging working conditions due to lockdown restrictions and a disconnect between them and the local community in Barnet
The Covid-19 pandemic has damaged the economy, making life for hundreds of thousands of people living in the UK highly precarious. Insecurity is particularly acute for migrant workers whose labour in private households is hidden from the public eye.
Each year the Home Office issues approximately 19,000 Overseas Domestic Worker visas to migrant labourers who work as nannies, housekeepers and carers. The Voice of Domestic Workers (VODW), a London-based charity, advocating on behalf of migrant domestic workers in the UK, has over 1,000 members. In a report from 2018 surveying 539 individual members, they found that “overseas domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation”, in part due to “visa restrictions that make it almost impossible” to change jobs when their visa is bound to their employer.
In an effort to understand how the pandemic is affecting migrant domestic workers (MDWs) living in Barnet, Barnet Post contacted Marissa Begonia, the director of VODW. Since MDWs cannot access the government’s furlough scheme, many of the women in her network would have ended up destitute were it not for VODW’s Covid-19 hardship fund, which has seen both cash and food allocated to struggling members. Without government help, it has been left to small organisations like VODW to support MDWs who are unable to work due to restrictions.
The daily toil of working in such uncertain circumstances is having an impact on MDWs living in Barnet. Barnet Post met with four Filipina women living and working in the borough to hear about their experiences.
It’s 8.30 pm when Mace, Joy, Sophie and Anne (not their real names) are free to be interviewed on zoom, explaining that they often work late into the evening. Although their caring roles have always been difficult, the pandemic has edged them towards breaking point.
In March last year, Sophie was made jobless without notice when her employers in Oxford asked her to move out of their house, afraid that she could be carrying the virus. Sophie was lucky to find another job caring for an elderly man in Enfield. However, when he died unexpectedly in January, she was left with just three weeks of work packing up the household. She is currently trying to find another job, a difficult task in the midst of the lockdown.
In and out of lockdowns, many MDWs find that they are left without work or pay. Mace, a live-out carer for an elderly man in Edgware, is only allowed inside his house when restrictions are lifted. However, since he does not pay her during lockdowns, she has not been able to send money home to her family in the Philippines. Anxious, Mace worries about family and questions if she “will have a future” now that this lockdown is dragging on and preventing her from making a living.
There is little regulation of the conditions for MDWs. Labour is rarely quantified when it is hidden in suburban living rooms and kitchens. In UK legislation, workers “employed as a domestic servant in a private household” are excluded from the maximum weekly working time of 48 hours, as well as health and safety inspections.
Joy is a live-in nanny and housekeeper for a family of four in Edgware. Tucked up underneath her employers’ starry duvet covers, Joy switches to Tagalog to prevent her employers from hearing her complain that she rarely finds a moment to herself. Now that the family are all at home, her work-load has doubled. Since her employment status is stable, she is mostly concerned about her friends who have contracted Covid-19.
Marissa blames employers’ carelessness for a stark rise in Covid-19 cases amongst members of VODW over January and February. In an email she explains:
“Many employers don't care about the restrictions. They won't listen to domestic workers even if they complain. But this pandemic is not something anyone can ignore, everyone should do their part to keep their family safe as well as the domestic workers working with them.”
Joy agrees with Marissa, telling the story of a friend in High Barnet who was asked to facilitate a dinner party of 20 people at her employers’ home in January.
Anne, who lives in Edgware and nannies three children in Mill Hill, also worries about her friends. Many of them can no longer afford their rent, and without government support, VODW is a lifeline. Anne says:
“Does Barnet Council know that there are undocumented people living in the borough and if they do know, then why do they not take care of them?”
A Barnet Council spokesperson said:
“The council’s COVID-19 community response programme aims to support all residents affected by the pandemic. In order to achieve this, we work in close partnership with voluntary and community sector groups who often have the best reach into our more vulnerable communities. We would encourage any resident experiencing hardship as a result of the pandemic to see what support is available via our website at engage.barnet.gov.uk/communityhelphub or by phoning the Barnet Covid Response Helpline on 0808 2813210.”
MDWs could be missing signposting towards local services due to what Marissa sees as a disconnect between the local community in Barnet and migrants in the borough:
“It is a question of who doesn't communicate really, the migrants? Or locals? Or should there be [something] in-between that should connect them? That should break this silence, any initiative from the local officials?”
No matter one’s status, Marissa says, “if we want to get out of this pandemic then nobody should be left behind”. But currently, migrant domestic workers, the unseen labour making up much of the caring economy in the borough and across the capital, are sidelined.
Donate to VODWs Covid-19 Hardship fund
Support their campaign to reinstate the right to citizenship
Read more about migrant domestic workers and their struggle for workers rights and protection
You can also access advice and support on their website if you are a migrant domestic worker in a crisis