My name is Sarah, I’m originally from the Philippines. I want to share my journey as a migrant domestic worker here in the UK; how far I travelled in search of a better living for myself and my family. I was not locked in a cage and my hands were not shackled, but my story is no different from that of slavery in Victorian times, as it is renamed today as modern day slavery.
I have been working and living in one of the borough of Haringey for almost a year now. I love this place because it’s quiet and peaceful, though I don’t have the courage to talk to people in the neighbourhood, as I’m still traumatised from having been employed by many abusive employers here in London. This is my 4th employer after I escaped from an abusive Arab employer in 2018. My 2nd employer was British, I worked for 65 hours per week without break for £400. I became very ill because of the hard work, so again I left. My 3rd employer was also British; I was offered £500 per week for 60 hours work. However, I could only get my salary after 3 months, and in reality, I was only paid £1,000 a month. I had to put up with this abuse, because I had nowhere to go and I didn’t want to starve my family back home. I thought working here in London would give me better working conditions, but I suffered as much as when I was in Saudi Arabia.
My father is a farmer while my mother is a housekeeper. Being the eldest daughter among my 10 siblings in my family, I carried a heavy responsibility to help my parents financially. Being born to a big, poor family, I realised early on how hard it is to earn a living. Growing up and living with my uncle, from primary one until my High School years so I could study, I came to realize that I needed to do something to help my family.
Sometime in March 2011, due to financial difficulties, I had to stop my studies temporarily and work as a saleslady in a grocery store. However, my desire was always to go back to school. I decided to try my luck on a government scholarship examination, which I passed. I studied for a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the University of Southern Mindanao. I told myself that I had to give my best in my studies, so I studied hard and became a university scholar. I also got involved in extracurricular activities as an officer of a government youth program, found time to do tutorial work and helped other students with their studies to earn extra money.
Finally, in April 2015, I graduated. Having earned my degree, I thought life would be easier. Reality, however, was different. I ended up working in a bakery, but soon I was fired because of my religion. Then, I got a job in our provincial office,but my salary was not enough to support my family. It was then that I planned to go abroad and work as a domestic worker, knowing that at least the processing of documents was free.
I flew to Saudi Arabia in 2015. My excitement at working for a prince died out soon enough. I worked almost 24 hours every day with no days off, no time for myself, no food and time to eat, and no sleep. I had to wear my uniform every time I went outside the house. I was mentally abused, at times shouted at, and threatened. I did not receive my salary for four months and I was made to serve other people, even when serving them was not covered by my contract. I also worked for nine months longer than my original contract, yet my employer wouldn’t let me go home. He said he ‘liked me and needed me’ and that he couldn’t find a replacement.
In July 2018, this Royal family planned to travel to London and, although they didn’t tell me about this, they brought me with them. I went to the British Embassy with my employer and I was asked to sign a document, but I wasn’t allowed to read it before signing it, so I didn’t know what I was signing for. I didn’t even know we were coming to London.
In September 2018 we arrived in London. I didn’t hold my own documents, so I never saw my passport and visa, and I knew nothing about my employment and rights here in UK. My situation here became worse. I was serving eight adults and one baby. It was very difficult. I had no time to rest and worked very long hours. I didn’t even know what time I would finish because each person would always call me to serve them, one after the other.
They would shout at me and call me trash. Trash became my name – as they wanted everything to be perfect and clean for all of them. But I also had a baby to look after who should have been my priority. But these adults were also my priority. I didn’t receive my salary while we were in the UK. They told me they would only give me my salary when we returned to Saudi Arabia. They didn’t give me proper food, only leftovers, but sometimes I couldn’t even swallow these because I am a Muslim and there were some foods that I couldn’t eat.
I decided to escape because I couldn’t take the hunger and abuse anymore. But I thank Allah (God) for sending me an angel who helped me escape. This person came to the house one day and, when I met her, told me that this family was abusing me, and that I was a victim of modern slavery and that I have human rights here in the UK. She gave me her number and address, so when I escaped she helped me. I was saved.
But escaping was not all. I suffered in the hands of many abusive employers. This was not only because of bad employers but also because there was nothing here in the UK that could immediately protect me. The law itself denied me the right to renew my 6 Months Overseas Domestic Worker Visa, making it difficult for me to find a new job before my visa expired. Who would employ me if I was undocumented? Only abusive employers who are taking advantage of a system that allows employers to abuse powerless domestic workers like me. Around this time, I got to know The Voice of domestic Workers (VODW), a self-organised group of migrant domestic workers campaigning for our rights and welfare in the UK. I was informed by VODW that I have no right to renew my Overseas Domestic Worker Visa (ODW)and my only option is to apply in the National Referral mechanism (NRM), a mechanism to identify whether I am a victim of modern slavery or trafficking; or else become undocumented because my ODW visa is non-renewable.
I applied to the NRM and received a positive RG (Reasonable Grounds) decision and I am now waiting for a CG (Conclusive Grounds) decision. I have been attending classes at VoDW every Sunday and even during covid19, I have been attending the VoDW virtual classes. I am happy because I can continue to learn; though I miss my fellow domestic workers when we meet physically every Sunday in Unite the Union in Holborn. I was also affected by the lockdown from March to July, having been fired without notice. Before lockdown, I was paid £400 per week for 5 days work. After the lockdown, my employer asked me to resume my work with an offer of only £200 per week for the same work hours. I only agreed if they could give me at least £250, which they agreed. I have no choice but to accept this because I haven’t been able to send money to my family since the lockdown. My employer’s business was also affected by the lockdown, that is why they couldn’t pay me the same. I don’t know if this is true but I’m hoping my salary can be restored again.
I am hoping to receive a positive CG decision, so I can continue to work and support my family, so they won’t experience the hardship I’ve had. I want to be in good health and have a normal life, where I can visit my family again. But this kind of protection is temporary and limited; it doesn’t recognise domestic workers as workers but as victims, which is the opposite of what we deserve.
The law has made it difficult for migrant domestic workers, tying us to a 6 Months visa system that doesn’t allow us to renew our visas. Because of this many of us became undocumented which pushes us more in severe abuse and exploitation. I also hope people support the campaign of VODW to re-instate the rights of domestic workers. These rights are the right to change employer, right to renew our visas, right to settlement and right to British citizenship. Like other workers, domestic workers are essential workers too, we are carers to children and the elderly and do general household chores. We look after the families that make up our society; without domestic workers, how could everybody go to work? As an important workforce, we also deserve to be treated with respect and dignity as workers and human beings.
Haringey Welcome is crowdfunding to support The Voice of Domestic Workers and women like Sarah. On our CrowdFunder page you’ll find Adversity Rhyme, the song we’ve launched to spearhead our appeal. If you’ve been moved by Sarah’s story, we hope you’ll contribute. https://crowdfunder.co.uk/haringeywelcome-covid-19-music-fundraiser.