The new rule disallows a domestic worker, brought by an employer into the country, to change employers thus effectively trapping the worker in an exploitive workplace.

Confiscation of passports, confinement to the home, physical and emotional abuse, long working hours with no rest time, no holidays, and low wages or non-payment of wages: these are some of the abuses that have been documented in a recent report on migrant domestic workers in the United Kingdom released on March 31 by Human Rights Watch.

The 58-page report “Hidden away: migrant domestic abuses in the UK” says that a recent immigration rule has actually made worse the condition of domestic workers.

According to the Home Office, 15,000 migrant domestic workers enter the UK every year. Mainly poorly educated women, they come from Asia and Africa with their employers as child-minders, carers for the elderly, cooks and cleaners.

Their lives and prospects were made considerably worse when in 2012, the Home Office, under Theresa May’s drive to control immigration, introduced a new ‘tied’ visa rule. This disallows a domestic worker who has been brought by an employer into the country to change employers, thus effectively trapping the worker in an exploitive workplace.

Thus, domestic workers who flee abusive work environments become illegal immigrants without passports or other documents. If they return they must face the fury of their employers.

On April 1, a campaign coalition comprising the trade union Unite, and the charities Justice for Domestic Workers, and Kalayaan, submitted a signed petition to Prime Minister David Cameron calling for the ‘tied’ visa rule to be scrapped, and the 1998 Overseas Domestic Workers visa to be restored. According to this, a migrant domestic worker need only work for an employer for a minimum period of a year, after which she is free to change employers.

Diana Holland, Unite assistant general secretary, said: “The powerful alliance that achieved the Overseas Domestic Workers visa in 1998 is coming together again to expose how the new tied visa has reintroduced slavery status, preventing migrant domestic workers from gaining their rights.”

Domestic workers told Human Rights Watch of working up to 18 hours per day without breaks, of going hungry and having to eat leftovers, of being disallowed the use of mobile phones, and of not being able to contact their families or leave the homes of the employers. Some received wages as little as £100 a month and even this was often withheld.

“In London they just locked me at home. I ate after they finished, the leftovers…. When I ran away I was sleeping in the park because I didn’t know anybody here…. I felt like a beggar,” the report quotes Sarah S, a Filipina domestic worker on a tied visa telling the project researcher.

"Before the rule was changed Kalayaan would get from 300-350 domestic workers approaching our centre for assistance every year. After the introduction of the tied visa we see 100 or so less, possibly because of the difficulties workers have of getting out of the house," Catherine Kenny of Kalayaan told The Hindu, adding 80 to 85 per cent of those who see us are women. Most domestic workers are poorly educated, although the spectrum includes the illiterate to degree holders."