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Migrant Workers began to organise around a call to be recognised as workers - Waling Waling

In 1982 staff at the Commission for Filipino Migrant Workers (CFMW) in West London noticed a change in the people coming to them. First one or two, and then more and more migrant domestic workers were coming having left employers after experiencing serious abuse. This meant they, and those who left their employer were undocumented. Then other nationalities began to come too: women from Sri Lanka, India, Nigeria and Nepal. All had entered Britain as domestic workers accompanying wealthy employers, some had a visitor’s visa with an ‘employment prohibited’ stamp, others had permission to enter to work for their employer, with the name of the employer written on their visa, others were given permission to enter as family members. What these visas had in common was that if the worker left the employer whom they had entered with they lost their immigration status and became undocumented. This immigration regime was known as the ‘domestic worker concession’ which was a concession, not for workers but for their wealthy employers, enabling them to travel in and out of the UK with their domestic staff.

Emboldened by meeting each other, and coming together as undocumented, the domestic workers began to organise around a call to be recognised as workers and have the right to change employer. With the help of CFMW they set up a self-organised group, open to all nationalities of migrant domestic workers, called Waling-Waling. This is the name of a tiny flower that grows in the mountains of the Philippines, hiding in the cracks, but beautiful. In 1987 CFMW and other organisations and individuals, established Kalayaan, or ‘Freedom’ with a remit to campaign for changing legislation and assisting Waling-Waling in campaigning for rights. Soon this in turn was supported by the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU – now UNITE the union). While domestic workers and undocumented migrants are supposed to be among the most difficult groups of workers to organise, Waling-Waling and Kalayaan went from strength to strength, raising public awareness through media and conferences, but more importantly, organising mutual support in jobs, housing and when necessary, anti-deportation campaigns. The government claimed that giving migrant domestic workers the right to change employer would mean that wealthy people would not want to come to the UK as it would give their workers a licence to run away. They insisted on maintaining the visa despite its violent effects and the disproportionate power it gave employers. Under pressure they began to make cosmetic changes, requiring, for example that workers be given information leaflets when they applied for visas, but refusing to resolve the issue at source.

The first phase of the campaign ended in 1998 when the Labour government regularised most of those who had entered the UK and been made undocumented as a result of the previous system and they were given permission to stay. However, the discretionary nature of the original visa which was then relied on for proof of entry meant that some found it easier than others. The first four of the stories in this collection are told by Waling-Waling members who were part of the organising and campaigning group that won this victory and whose status were regularised. In 1998 the government also changed the concession and introduced a visa that made domestic workers’ immigration status independent of their employer. It gave them the right to work on their own account and to change employer. Workers could access employment tribunals, join trades unions and had employment protections including the minimum wage. While in employment, they could renew their visa and after five years workers could apply for permanent residence. This was usually granted provided they had kept the condition i.e. only worked in private households. After a further year they could apply for citizenship. The second two stories in the collection are from workers who entered the UK under this arrangement.

The hard won right to be treated as workers came under pressure only ten years later in 2008 with the difficulty of accommodating domestic workers within the Points Based System. Given that the UK was no longer granting visas to ‘low skilled’ non-EU migrants, the domestic worker visa represented an anomaly. The Government attempted to withdraw the visa, but came under pressure from domestic workers, campaigners and trades unions and drew back, initiating a two-year consultation. However, in the 2010 general election the Conservative Party had a manifesto commitment to drastically reduce the numbers of migrants coming to the UK for 12 months or more. The incoming coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats reopened the debate on domestic workers in their pursuit of reduced net migration. They announced that from April 2012 domestic workers accompanying their employers would only be eligible for a six month non-renewable visa. They would not be able to change employer, and would have to leave the UK with their employer. It was acknowledged by Government Ministers that employment in private households could be abusive, but the problem was explicitly connected to the foreignness of employing households. Then Home Secretary Theresa May stated: “We recognise that the ODW routes can at times result in the import of abusive employer/employee relationships to the UK” . Whereas previously vulnerability to abuse was used to demand labour rights, protection rather than rights was invoked as the appropriate response: “We do not necessarily believe that a right to change employer whatever the reason is the only way to provide protection” (Home Office Response to OSCE Country report on the UK, Justine Currell, 2012). The principle protection for migrant domestic workers was now to be refusal of entry. “The biggest protection for these workers will be delivered by limiting access to the UK through these routes” (Home Office, Statement of Intent, 29th February 2012). Refugees may, theoretically at least, be protected by flight, but domestic workers are it seems protected by not being able to move in the first place. The three of the last four stories are told by women who entered under this new system, and are consequently undocumented. One is told by someone who entered before 2012 but finds herself undocumented through no fault of her own. They have joined Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW), a campaigning group of domestic workers organising for domestic workers’ rights. will strengthen the hand of the exploitative employer who will know it is unlikely domestic workers will change employers given the difficulties in finding work in such a short period” ( The Government continues to peddle the myth that abused domestic workers will find protection under anti-trafficking and anti-slavery protections. In 2015, 353 adults were referred as suspected victims of trafficking for the purposes of domestic servitude. No data is available to confirm how many of those who entered on the visa really did find protection under this provision.

There are often complaints that unintegrated migrants keep themselves to themselves, that they do not engage with citizens but live parallel lives, and they cling to old-fashioned non-European cultures. But migrant domestic workers are integrated into the heart of families all over Europe. They engage with different generations in their daily lives, as they look after the elderly, pick up children from school, and prepare food. In many cases they facilitate employment, enabling parents to go to work, and they paper over the cracks in welfare states, which often do not accommodate the contemporary long and unpredictable working hours culture. Yet despite this they are often isolated and lonely. Their situation illustrate how un-integrated our lives are, how the public and the private are kept separate, how the home is always under the shadow of our work, and the work involved in maintaining it is both gendered and invisible. And considering the situation of migrant domestic workers tells us a lot about the societies that employ them. In surveys conducted in the UK and Spain for instance the majority of employers say that they would not consider employing a man to look after their children. Employers are more likely to employ a man to look after an elderly relative. There are certain nationalities that would not be employed, particularly Black Africans. Indeed when recruiting for private households, some employers’ overt racism would be challenged if they were recruiting someone to work in their workplace. They will deploy stereotypes – about certain nationalities being docile, dirty or lazy – with an easy racism that in other contexts would be unacceptable. In practice, some employing families are those clinging on to old-fashioned ideas of race and gender, and are finding it hard to live integrated lives.

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