To mark International Migrants’ Day 2022, Mariko Hayashi and Luisa Pineda from the Southeast and East Asian Centre (SEEAC) highlight the barriers and risks faced by migrant workers from their community, sharing first-hand experiences of exploitation and calling for workers to be better protected in this guest blog.
Following the recent UN review of the UK’s human rights record (the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)), several member states made recommendations for the UK government to strengthen protections for migrant workers and for the UK to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Prior to the UN UPR, SEEAC met with several diplomats and UN human rights experts in Geneva to share first-hand experiences of members of East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) migrant communities and our recommendations for improving the protection of their rights.
The UK government has argued that the rights of migrant workers are protected under domestic laws. However, like many other migrants, ESEA migrants working in the UK continue to face ongoing barriers to asserting their labour rights. Many of these barriers are due to the challenges and limitations that come with the UK’s “Hostile Environment” policies, which have forced migrants to take up short-term and often non-renewable visas entailing high visa fees and no access to adequate social protections, while also making it a criminal offence to work without the right to work.
TW: suicidal feelings
Myrna from the Philippines has lived in the UK for almost 18 years and currently works as a part-time housekeeper and carer. She feels that her status as an undocumented migrant is the main reason she is not entitled to employment rights.
“They [employer] say if I have a paper... [I will be able to be paid] £12/hr. She [a colleague who has legal status] get paid holiday, but for me, no work no pay. They are exploiting my situation. No contract. Bank holiday, same pay. Even if I learn about the labour rights or employment rights, it is not applicable for me because of my status. At least I know the law, but I cannot enjoy it.”
She worked in a care home alongside other undocumented workers during the first breakout of COVID-19 for several days without rest or adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other essential supplies.
“During the first lockdown at care home—all workers left in the care home were all "illegal" people. Five carers [all undocumented] for 18 residents. For 48 hours, I was up and about, stinking, no change [clothes]. One tea bag had to be used for five times. No sugar. Just so that they [residents] know there is tea. I was even scared for my own life. We were even tempted to jump off the window to escape the care home. If we did not look after those people, it's either they die or we die. … I was in the battle field for two days, almost three days without any food supply.”
Without the right to work and access welfare, healthcare or rent accommodation legally, she lives in constant fear of surveillance and immigration enforcement. However, she hopes that her contribution to society will be fully recognised and that one day she will not have to live and work in hiding.
Lack of options leading to exploitation
Myrna’s story highlights that those in precarious employment and/or with undocumented status often have few options for accessing decent work. Legal routes that allow ESEA migrants to enter or continue to stay in the UK to work are very limited or non-existent, especially for workers in low-paid, temporary or seasonal sectors, and for workers that do not hold professional or academic qualifications. For example, both the Overseas Domestic Worker Visa and the Seasonal Worker Visa are only valid for a maximum of 6 months and are non-renewable. Other visas require the applicant’s qualifications to be recognised in the UK (something that is difficult to do in practice) or to reach minimum income thresholds, which are often difficult for ESEA migrants to meet. Some routes include restrictions that make it difficult to change employers. Likewise, some individuals have to pay extortionate visa fees of at least £2,593 every 2.5 years to settle in the UK, costs that are too high for people to be able to afford to renew their visa, increasing the risk of them becoming undocumented. The lack of options to enter or continue to stay and work in the UK makes the position of migrants precarious and vulnerable, placing them at a higher risk of labour exploitation.
In 2021, SEEAC, with support from Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) conducted Feminist Participatory Action Research, a participatory research approach involving migrant workers as peer researchers, with nearly 30 migrant women in the UK — including Myrna — from the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. The study included women who were undocumented and/or going into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a framework for identifying potential victims of modern slavery and ensuring appropriate support, or who are in the asylum process. Some identified themselves as having experienced trafficking.
The lack of options and vulnerabilities these women experience persists, even when they seek legal protection through the NRM or through the asylum process. All Vietnamese women we spoke with through the research had experienced one or both of these legal processes and were not given the right to work while waiting for decisions on their cases, often for more than two years.
“Sometimes I feel useless. I can do nothing. I don’t have permission to do anything.”
Vietnamese woman who underwent NRM and asylum processes
While waiting for their claims to be processed, cash support is available at £40.85 per week, for those going through the asylum process to buy food, sanitation, and clothing, and similarly at £35 – £65 per week for those in the NRM, depending on their situations. These forms of financial support are well below the UK’s poverty line of £141 per week and destitution line of £70 per week.
“40 pounds a week means that I can’t afford milk and nappies for my kid. My budget is so tight... I have to save money…. We go to every place that offers free stuff like food, WiFi...”
Vietnamese woman in the asylum process with a 4-month-old baby
The women going through this legal process expressed their desire to work while they were waiting for decisions on their cases to be made so that they could improve their skills to better integrate into society.
“Even if the Home Office is unable to accept our asylum applications at the moment, they should allow us to work.... This will help us improve our English competency, and develop our knowledge of the local life such as culture, lifestyles and social norms. This is much [more] beneficial than giving us 35-40 pounds per week and making us just staying at home.”
Vietnamese woman in the asylum process
Better protection of migrant workers
On this International Migrants Day, SEEAC, as a grassroots by-and-for migrant-led organisation, is calling for necessary changes that will improve the protection of migrants’ rights in the UK. We want to see legal, policy and practical changes to allow migrant workers to enjoy their rights as workers without fear of immigration law enforcement or risking their immigration status. Potential victims of trafficking and people seeking asylum should be given sufficient support to live with dignity and free from poverty so that they are not vulnerable to further exploitation and so that all can access their right to decent work whilst awaiting a final determination on their case.
Seeking better lives for ourselves and our loved ones is not a crime — everyone should be able to assert their right to decent work without fear of criminalisation, detention or forced deportation. We call on the UK government to follow the recommendations made at the UN UPR and to ratify the Migrant Workers Convention to show a commitment to better protecting the rights of migrant workers.
The Southeast and East Asian Centre is a by-and-for community-led organisation for migrants of East and Southeast Asian heritage in the UK. To find out more about their work, please visit their website or their social media pages: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
*name has been changed to protect anonymity