On the first day of her new job as a live-in domestic worker, Gemma was told to remove her mask. “Take it off so I can see you properly,” said her employer, the owner of the house, before falling into a coughing fit. Gemma did as she was told, terrified of being struck off. Eight weeks out of full-time work had left her finances in turmoil, and she couldn’t risk losing this rare offer of work.
Unmasked, the Filipina national proceeded to clean the six-storey home from top to bottom. She noticed the Greek family for whom she was working were coughing in close proximity to her with apparent disregard for the coronavirus pandemic. Powerless in her position, she carried on working with her head down.
That evening, despite the lockdown and the symptoms the family was showing, her employer had three guests for dinner. Gemma served them diligently, trying to prove herself to be a good worker, but she was all too aware of the risks facing both her and the dinner guests.
Two days later, Gemma felt faint. She worked through it – another 16-hour day, as her employer instructed. The next morning, she could barely lift herself out of bed. “My body was so heavy. I had a fever and a bad cough. I felt faint and I couldn’t breathe properly,” she remembers.
Her employer was unsympathetic. She was given some medicine and told to continue working. “I didn’t get any rest,” she says. “They said, you should be happy that you have a job. They made me work from 8am to 11pm. I had a bad headache. I wanted to collapse. But I had to do all the household work.”
Gemma’s health had declined further the next morning. Still, she was forced to work. She stumbled around the house using all of her strength to complete the chores despite the fever burning through her body as she did her best to stifle the heavy coughs trying to escape from her lungs.
To her relief, she was dismissed from her duties in the afternoon and told she could go home. But as she left she saw another Filipina domestic worker being ushered in by her employer. She had been replaced.
Defeated, Gemma made her way home, sick and jobless. She tested positive for coronavirus, leaving her unable to work for another two weeks.
Gemma is one of many migrant domestic workers who have struggled to find employment during the pandemic. The risk of virus transmission means many households are no longer willing to take in live-in carers and cleaners, leading to a dramatic reduction in work opportunities.
Not eligible for furlough or other forms of government support, and with many also being the breadwinners for their families back in their home countries, undocumented domestic workers in the UK have continued to seek work. In an industry that already carried with it a high risk of exploitation, the dearth of options during the pandemic has made them more susceptible to falling into abusive employment or working arrangements where they are not protected from coronavirus.
The consequences can be fatal. Kanlungan Filipino Consortium, which supports migrant domestic workers in London, reports that four of its members died from Covid-19 in the first two weeks of February alone.
Charities say this has made a bad situation worse. Currently, the UK offers an overseas domestic worker visa which lasts for six months and allows holders to change employer within this time period if they wish. But they cannot extend their visas or apply for further leave to remain, meaning that if they remain in the country beyond the six-month period, they become undocumented.
Around 17,000 of these visas are issued each year, but as a result of the stringent rules attached to it, many domestic workers who have arrived via this route no longer have immigration status, already making them more vulnerable to exploitation. The majority of these workers are from the Philippines.
Campaigners are calling on ministers to reinstate the pre-2012 overseas domestic worker visa, which allowed migrant domestic workers to renew their status, and provide them with a route to settlement. A parliamentary petition outlining the demands has been signed more than 12,000 times.
Marissa Begonia, founding member of support group Voice of Domestic Workers and a domestic worker herself, warns that the reason her members are forced to put up with employers who flout coronavirus rules is because “they don’t have rights”.
“These workers are so vulnerable, and no one really knows what is happening to them,” she says. “These employers aren’t following the rules. They’re employing these undocumented women because they know there’s nothing to protect them; they know the government won’t do anything to help them.
“We need to end this as soon as possible. We need to reinstate their rights. Their visa is their life, so cutting that off is like cutting their lives. By allowing them to be working and living here legally, they will be paying tax and national insurance. They don’t want to be a burden.”
Avril Sharp, from charity Kalayaan, says the only way to guarantee that these workers are protected is by restoring the original visa, which gave “fundamental rights” to workers to challenge abusive employers without risking their job, their livelihood, their health or their status in the UK.
“The case for restoring rights to migrant domestic workers has never been clearer than it is right now. Without rights, this workforce has no way to challenge any aspect of their treatment, meaning employers can flout the rules, exploit these workers and place them at risk of contracting Covid-19,” she says. “Only when workers have rights will they be protected and everyone kept safe from contracting this virus.”
Domestic worker Kelly, 42, was torn when she was offered to work on Christmas Day: it would be a small family gathering of no more than six people, she was told. Although she knew this carried risks, the Filipina woman decided to take it as she was desperate for work.
On arrival at the employer’s home, Kelly discovered she had been lied to: around 20 guests turned up. And to make matters worse, she was instructed not to wear a mask.
Two days later, she started coughing. “I thought it was a normal cough. I drank warm water and some medicine. But after two days, I had a headache and my body ached and I had fever,” she says. “I was lying down in bed and could barely move. When I opened my eyes there was so much pain. I thought I was going to die and that I’d never see my family again.”
The domestic worker, who has been in UK for three years, sobs as she describes how she then passed on coronavirus to four of the six Filipina women with whom she shares a house – all of whom are, like her, undocumented.
In another case, Lucy, 49, who has been in the UK for 12 years and is also undocumented, contracted Covid-19 in January after working at a wedding. The domestic worker, who lost her full-time job as a live-in carer when the pandemic started, had been told it would be a small gathering with only family members. The reality was quite different.
“I walked in and saw they had turned their huge living room into a wedding hall,” Lucy remembers. Guests started to arrive and soon around 50 people were in attendance, seemingly oblivious to the blatant breach of lockdown rules taking place within the walls of this expensive London home.
Despite her internal panic, Lucy held her smile and continued to circulate the room politely offering canapes and champagne top-ups to guests. The host had ordered her not to wear a mask because it would look “awkward”. Lucy felt she had no choice but to get on with the job, hoping that no one in the room was infected.
Several days later, she developed a fever, and it soon emerged that she had contracted coronavirus.
“If I had my documents, of course I would not be doing this kind of job,” says the Filipina national, who is still recovering from the virus. “I never have security at work. I have to go between jobs every day which I know is dangerous. Some employers are sensible, but other just don’t care.”
As well as being placed at risk due to employers acting recklessly by mixing with multiple households, some domestic workers have had freedoms severely curtailed as a result of the lockdown.
“Since March, they’ve locked me here,” says Lynn, another Filipina national. The 38-year-old has left her employer’s home only twice since the pandemic started in March, and both times have been fleeting walks while her employer was sleeping. She is banned from going outside due to lockdown rules – yet her employer has visitors to the house every day.
“They are being very strict with me following the rules, but they’re having people to visit,” she says. “If their family and friends are coming in and out, why can’t I, on my day off, go out to send money to my family and get some fresh air? They don’t even allow me to walk outside.”
Aside from not being able to have daily exercise outdoors, Lynn is prevented from leaving the house to send money back to her family in the Philippines. Instead, she has to rely on friends to collect the money from her employer’s home and do it for her, which requires her to go down the lift to the building entrance – and even that is prohibited.
“If they caught me doing that, I don’t know what they would say and what punishment they would give me,” she says, her voice trembling. “I go as quickly as I can so they don’t catch me. I’m not allowed to get fresh air; I can only look out of the window. It feels like I’m trapped here.”
Home Office minister Kevin Foster said it was “completely unacceptable for selfish individuals to exploit vulnerable workers and put them at risk as they breach Covid rules” – and that when reported, the government expected the police to take “tough action” against them.
He said the Home Office was committed to protecting migrant domestic workers from exploitation, but did not respond to concerns about domestic workers who are undocumented due to the visa restrictions.
The reality is that many migrant domestic workers who fall undocumented due to the stringent conditions on their visas, being unemployed during the pandemic is not an option. They will continue to accept work, and where their wealthy employers flout the rules and place them at risk, they will keep their heads down and say nothing.
Names have been changed