Insider: Virginia Mantouvalou

Migrant domestic workers are the unseen victims of modern slavery. Virginia Mantouvalou, Professor of Human Rights and Labour Law, is researching how the UK visa system is making them even more vulnerable

Illustration of Virginia Mantouvalou, Professor of Human Rights and Labour Law at UCL

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Each year, the UK issues around 16,000 overseas domestic workers visas, mainly to cleaners and nannies, who arrive accompanying their employers from abroad to work for them while they visit the UK.

On arrival, many of them know little about the UK, they often don’t speak English, they have no friends and because they are live-in workers, they cannot easily contact others. They are generally scared of their employer and the authorities. I learnt all this first-hand via interviews I conducted for my research into workers’ rights and victims of modern slavery.

Modern slavery is not a legal term.

It became fashionable in the past decade around the issue of extreme forms of labour exploitation and prompted the government to create the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. Unfortunately, the Act focuses on criminalising individual employers rather than protecting the victims, whose vulnerability, I believe, is then further exposed by flaws in the visa system. Where, before 2012, overseas domestic workers could renew their visa for up to five years and even apply for permanent leave to remain, their visa is now valid for just six months and ties them to their current employer.

Recent changes to the visa have not been effective.

In 2016, the government amended the scheme, giving domestic workers the right to stay in the UK for up to two and a half years, provided they can show that they have been victims of human trafficking or modern slavery. The problem is that it is hard to prove abuse and exploitation because these workers live in private homes, hidden from the public eye. They can also change employer during the first six months of their visa, but who will hire a domestic worker when the worker can only stay in the country for another month or two?

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Each year, the UK issues around 16,000 overseas domestic workers visas, mainly to cleaners and nannies, who arrive accompanying their employers from abroad to work for them while they visit the UK.

On arrival, many of them know little about the UK, they often don’t speak English, they have no friends and because they are live-in workers, they cannot easily contact others. They are generally scared of their employer and the authorities. I learnt all this first-hand via interviews I conducted for my research into workers’ rights and victims of modern slavery.

Modern slavery is not a legal term.

It became fashionable in the past decade around the issue of extreme forms of labour exploitation and prompted the government to create the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. Unfortunately, the Act focuses on criminalising individual employers rather than protecting the victims, whose vulnerability, I believe, is then further exposed by flaws in the visa system. Where, before 2012, overseas domestic workers could renew their visa for up to five years and even apply for permanent leave to remain, their visa is now valid for just six months and ties them to their current employer.

Recent changes to the visa have not been effective.

In 2016, the government amended the scheme, giving domestic workers the right to stay in the UK for up to two and a half years, provided they can show that they have been victims of human trafficking or modern slavery. The problem is that it is hard to prove abuse and exploitation because these workers live in private homes, hidden from the public eye. They can also change employer during the first six months of their visa, but who will hire a domestic worker when the worker can only stay in the country for another month or two?

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Each year, the UK issues around 16,000 overseas domestic workers visas, mainly to cleaners and nannies, who arrive accompanying their employers from abroad to work for them while they visit the UK.

On arrival, many of them know little about the UK, they often don’t speak English, they have no friends and because they are live-in workers, they cannot easily contact others. They are generally scared of their employer and the authorities. I learnt all this first-hand via interviews I conducted for my research into workers’ rights and victims of modern slavery.

Modern slavery is not a legal term.

It became fashionable in the past decade around the issue of extreme forms of labour exploitation and prompted the government to create the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. Unfortunately, the Act focuses on criminalising individual employers rather than protecting the victims, whose vulnerability, I believe, is then further exposed by flaws in the visa system. Where, before 2012, overseas domestic workers could renew their visa for up to five years and even apply for permanent leave to remain, their visa is now valid for just six months and ties them to their current employer.

Recent changes to the visa have not been effective.

In 2016, the government amended the scheme, giving domestic workers the right to stay in the UK for up to two and a half years, provided they can show that they have been victims of human trafficking or modern slavery. The problem is that it is hard to prove abuse and exploitation because these workers live in private homes, hidden from the public eye. They can also change employer during the first six months of their visa, but who will hire a domestic worker when the worker can only stay in the country for another month or two?

“You learn far more about your field when you meet the people who are affected by it”
“You learn far more about your field when you meet the people who are affected by it”
“You learn far more about your field when you meet the people who are affected by it”

During my research, it’s become clear that the pre-2012 visa (upheld as a model by international organisations) was fairer and had only a tiny impact on net migration.

Some have suggested abolishing the visa, but we know that, in the past, domestic workers were brought into the UK either on a tourist visa or falsely claimed as family members – a worse scenario for worker exploitation. If workers had no right to be here, they had no workers’ rights.

I’ve been a trustee of Kalayaan, a UK-based NGO for migrant domestic workers, since 2013. You learn far more about your field when you meet the people who are affected by it.

I had assumed that migrant workers could use the law to challenge the employers. But when workers explained the visa process, e.g. how they are given a contract and told their rights in a language that they don’t understand, I realised that the law is not working as it should. By being a trustee, I am helping to shape Kalayaan’s policies. It’s also beneficial for my teaching and students, some of whom have gone on to conduct research for Kalayaan.

In February 2020, I co-organised a panel with Natalie Sedacca (PhD student, UCL Laws) and Kalayaan at the UCL Faculty of Laws on the rights of migrant domestic workers. Among other speakers, three workers, their identities hidden, gave moving testimonies of their experiences of being victims of modern slavery and human trafficking here in London.

Through my focus on modern slavery, I have realised that sometimes even laws, which at first have a legitimate aim, can end up forcing or trapping workers in situations of workplace exploitation and so I am broadening my research.

Thanks to a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship, I’ll work on a book, examining examples such as prisoners required to work while they are in prison, those working in immigration detention, and people who are forced to take exploitative jobs through the Universal Credit system, including those on zero-hours contracts. My aim is to show how laws that create structures of exploitation may violate the human rights of workers.

Virginia Mantouvalou is Professor of Human Rights and Labour Law, Faculty of Laws.

Discover more about Kalayaan

Illustration Paul Ryding

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

During my research, it’s become clear that the pre-2012 visa (upheld as a model by international organisations) was fairer and had only a tiny impact on net migration.

Some have suggested abolishing the visa, but we know that, in the past, domestic workers were brought into the UK either on a tourist visa or falsely claimed as family members – a worse scenario for worker exploitation. If workers had no right to be here, they had no workers’ rights.

I’ve been a trustee of Kalayaan, a UK-based NGO for migrant domestic workers, since 2013. You learn far more about your field when you meet the people who are affected by it.

I had assumed that migrant workers could use the law to challenge the employers. But when workers explained the visa process, e.g. how they are given a contract and told their rights in a language that they don’t understand, I realised that the law is not working as it should. By being a trustee, I am helping to shape Kalayaan’s policies. It’s also beneficial for my teaching and students, some of whom have gone on to conduct research for Kalayaan.

In February 2020, I co-organised a panel with Natalie Sedacca (PhD student, UCL Laws) and Kalayaan at the UCL Faculty of Laws on the rights of migrant domestic workers. Among other speakers, three workers, their identities hidden, gave moving testimonies of their experiences of being victims of modern slavery and human trafficking here in London.

Through my focus on modern slavery, I have realised that sometimes even laws, which at first have a legitimate aim, can end up forcing or trapping workers in situations of workplace exploitation and so I am broadening my research.

Thanks to a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship, I’ll work on a book, examining examples such as prisoners required to work while they are in prison, those working in immigration detention, and people who are forced to take exploitative jobs through the Universal Credit system, including those on zero-hours contracts. My aim is to show how laws that create structures of exploitation may violate the human rights of workers.

Virginia Mantouvalou is Professor of Human Rights and Labour Law, Faculty of Laws.

Discover more about Kalayaan

Illustration Paul Ryding

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

During my research, it’s become clear that the pre-2012 visa (upheld as a model by international organisations) was fairer and had only a tiny impact on net migration.

Some have suggested abolishing the visa, but we know that, in the past, domestic workers were brought into the UK either on a tourist visa or falsely claimed as family members – a worse scenario for worker exploitation. If workers had no right to be here, they had no workers’ rights.

I’ve been a trustee of Kalayaan, a UK-based NGO for migrant domestic workers, since 2013. You learn far more about your field when you meet the people who are affected by it.

I had assumed that migrant workers could use the law to challenge the employers. But when workers explained the visa process, e.g. how they are given a contract and told their rights in a language that they don’t understand, I realised that the law is not working as it should. By being a trustee, I am helping to shape Kalayaan’s policies. It’s also beneficial for my teaching and students, some of whom have gone on to conduct research for Kalayaan.

In February 2020, I co-organised a panel with Natalie Sedacca (PhD student, UCL Laws) and Kalayaan at the UCL Faculty of Laws on the rights of migrant domestic workers. Among other speakers, three workers, their identities hidden, gave moving testimonies of their experiences of being victims of modern slavery and human trafficking here in London.

Through my focus on modern slavery, I have realised that sometimes even laws, which at first have a legitimate aim, can end up forcing or trapping workers in situations of workplace exploitation and so I am broadening my research.

Thanks to a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship, I’ll work on a book, examining examples such as prisoners required to work while they are in prison, those working in immigration detention, and people who are forced to take exploitative jobs through the Universal Credit system, including those on zero-hours contracts. My aim is to show how laws that create structures of exploitation may violate the human rights of workers.

Virginia Mantouvalou is Professor of Human Rights and Labour Law, Faculty of Laws.

Discover more about Kalayaan

Illustration Paul Ryding

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.