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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 March 2006, 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK
Dirty work

Every year thousands of foreign migrants come to Britain to work in people's homes. But behind the 3bn industry sometimes lies a story of exploitation and abuse.

"British people say slavery is still happening in Africa, but they never know it's still in their own country as well," says Fatima.

She helped friend Darriatou escape from a job where she says she was virtually held prisoner for four years, had to work from 6am until late, never had a day off - not even Christmas Day - and was paid just 100 a month.

Darriatou is still scared to go out in public in case she sees her former employers and Fatima does not want to be identified for fear of reprisals.

In Britain, one in 10 households already employs some form of domestic help and numbers have begun to rise rapidly. Households now spend 3bn a year on domestic and garden work, according to Mintel.

Voodoo curse

Most of today's domestic workers are foreign migrants drawn to Britain by the promise of high wages - hard currency they can use to support their families back home.

Streets of Slavery: Dirty Work will be broadcast in the UK on Thursday 30 March at 0915 BST on BBC One
It is estimated that around two thirds of these migrants work over 15 hours a day and earn under 200 a month. The law requires employers to pay tax and national insurance on the wages paid to domestic staff, but many evade it.

They are extremely vulnerable, particularly when they work in private homes where they can be invisible to the authorities. And while many work as servants work in grand houses, others are hidden among council estates where they live as virtual slaves.

Darriatou was a 'virtual prisoner'
Darriatou - bought to London from Senegal on a fake passport - was used as a domestic servant in her employer's three bedroom council flat in east London.

Her employers allegedly threaten her with voodoo curses to keep her under control. She is now seeking asylum in the UK.

"It's like slavery," she says. "You are not allowed to have friend, you are not allowed nothing. You just stay and eat and sleep."

Her former employers deny the claims and say they rescued her after she fled traffickers and treated her as one of the family.

According to the Kalayaan Centre in west London - which gives advice to such workers - 80% of migrants working in private households suffer psychological abuse and 47% have been locked in the premises. Even if they don't suffer the above, a lot will be paid below the minimum wage.


"A lot of employers are not willing to pay the going rate at all because often they think they're doing the workers a favour," says centre spokeswoman Fiona Kuckhoo.

Many migrants put up with bad conditions because of the threat of deportation. To be legal they need a working domestic visa, naming their employer and their place of work. The employer has to sign a declaration every year in order for the visa to be renewed. So, the servant's right to stay in this country depends on their boss.

Rahayu arrived from Indonesia nearly two years ago to do housework and childcare in a flat in the suburbs of London. Apart from working long hours, she says she had to sleep on the floor and was physically bullied by the children she had to look after, claims her former employers deny.

Sarah Stewart-Smith and housekeeper Monique
Sarah says Monique is a godsend

"You are not allowed to speak," she says. "You Indonesian, poor, you stupid, you don't talk, you must shut your mouth."

She was befriended by a fellow Indonesian woman living in London, whose husband is British. They were appalled by her story and she now works for them.

But when her domestic visa with her former boss expired, and despite her new employers applying for another one, she was sent to an immigration detention centre for nearly a month until her new family bailed her out.

With the huge increase in demand for cheap labour in the home, employment agencies across the UK have been quick to respond.


The Housekeeper Company, based in Manchester, supplies foreign housekeepers to families all over the UK.

"Over the last few years more and more women are juggling careers, children and the home and want to maintain high levels in all of them," says Julia Harris from the Housekeeper Company.

"It's a continual juggling act. You need help to keep those balls in the air because if one ball goes missing the whole lot comes tumbling down.

"We do our utmost to ensure the employers pay tax and national insurance for their employees and basically, they are subject to exactly the same working conditions as any British employee."

Rahayu had to sleep on the floor

For some it works out well. Filipino housekeeper Monique works for Sarah Stewart-Smith in West Sussex. She has her own room, a reasonable wage and her boss thinks she is a godsend.

"We renewed her visa in December for the next year," says Sarah. "I actually said I'd have her for the next five if she wants to stay. I think she's delightful."

But while demand for domestic help is higher than ever before there are still more economic migrants than jobs, with around 10,000 new foreign nationals arriving legally every year to work in Britain's homes. The number is growing all the time.

But with only a limited number of jobs some employers are pushing the boundaries and domestic workers are even more open to exploitation, says the Kalayaan Centre.

Streets of Slavery: Dirty Work will be broadcast in the UK on Thursday 30 March at 0915 BST on BBC One

Your comments

When I first came to London, I worked as an au-pair for an Indian couple. They locked my passport away, I worked 12/13-hour-days and got paid 65. The family were very rich, from Kingston Vale, very proud of themselves and their wealth, and yet still emplying illegal workers to avoid expense, despite the husband being a lawyer. I lasted 5 weeks, and then told them I wanted to leave. There were scenes, but eventually I got my passport back and went home. To me, all these stories are just another argument for tighter imigration controls and not letting immigrants into the UK.
Jo, London, UK

Jo, London, UK you should name and shame these people, give their address too so they can not do it again.

The above stories are, of course, truly shocking. However, I disagree with Jo that it argues for tighter immigration controls. In my opinion it should be much easier to come here - for a limited time, say 5 years max - to earn money, whether to travel, to send home, whatever. It would solve the problem of 'economic migrants' having to make a specious asylum application. And people here legally would be much easier to protect from exploitation, trafficking, dangerous working practices etc.
Penny, Exeter UK

I understand that the situations here are not ideal especiall for those people who are being in slaved and made to work ridicuolous hours but alot of the time coming here is better than being where they where. Immegrants are normally as such for a reason. I don't believe we should stop them coming into the country all together just be a bit more carefull and stringent on vetting those who are allowed and the kind of life they are coming here to.
Pamella, Bristol, UK

I have a "cleaner" that comes once a week. I haven't asked questions about her background, but she works so hard, I'd almost do anything to help her out. She's was a teacher in Estonia, but feels she gets more here, and says her life is better. I pay her 8 an hour, which is good, but she always goes beyond the call of duty. I don't know if immigration controls are part of the problem, the cause or solution, but i do know that all the other "British" cleaners I've had have never done anywhere near such a good job.
Edward S, London, Uk

This problem is fueled by the employers greed, as most problems for imigrants are. My niece is Brazilian and works for a family in Germany. They are both dentists, own 3 homes and entrust their children to my niece who they pay 200 Euros a MONTH. It is not just the people from poverty who are taken in by greed. My niece has learnt fluent German in one year and has now told them in their own langauge where to shuv their explootation.
antony, London


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