New Delhi must take up the cause of low skilled migrant workers in the U.K. with as much vigour as it has pursued the issue of the cash bond on visitor visas

There has been much consternation in India ever since the British government announced its plans to introduce a cash bond for a visitor visa, and which it has reportedly decided to go ahead with. Mooted as a pilot scheme, a cash bond of £3,000 may be required of nationals of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ghana, who apply for the six-month visa to visit the United Kingdom. Many commentators have objected to the discrimination inherent in such a proposal, which targets non-white Commonwealth countries. However, the discrimination and restrictions faced by a large number of low-skilled and low-income Indian migrant workers in the U.K., including a large number of women, have been lost in the furore.

The Cameron-led coalition government in the U.K. has been making concerted efforts to overhaul the immigration system in order to stand true to its promise of “reducing net immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands.” Drastic changes have been made to employment related settlement, post-study work permits and family migration. Indian nationals in the U.K. — approximately 7,29,000 (2011) — have naturally been affected, with some groups hit harder than others.

Discriminatory

For example, changes to the Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visa introduced in April 2012, though not country-specific like the cash bond scheme, have significantly affected nationals of India and the Philippines, especially women; they constitute the largest group of ODWs in the U.K. (39 per cent and 24 per cent respectively; 2006-08). An ODW visa allows domestic workers from other countries, sponsored by a U.K.-based employer, to work in the U.K. Such ODWs could previously change their employer after a six-month period; however with effect from April 2012, ODWs can enter the U.K. as a “visitor” only for a six- month period with no right of extension or to change employer. In other words, their immigration status is bound to their sponsor-employer and they risk becoming undocumented upon relinquishing employment. In the face of numerous cases of exploitation of Indian ODWs in the U.K. and violation of employment rights, including sexual abuse, the withdrawal of their right to change employers has the potential of creating an underclass of workers vulnerable to discrimination and ill-treatment.

Family migration

The changes to family migration in the U.K. have also hit Commonwealth countries’ nationals the hardest. British citizens wishing to sponsor a non-EU spouse now need to show minimum annual earnings of £18,600 — a steep increase from the pre-2012 requirement of £5,500 per year (excluding housing costs). More than half the working population in the U.K. earns less than this figure, including more than 40 per cent in the ethnic minority communities who earn less than £14,500 per annum. This rule in effect makes it difficult for ethnic minorities in the U.K., including those of Commonwealth origin, to sponsor their spouses. The probation period for non-EU migrants on a spouse or partner visa has also been increased from two to five years. This move bears the risk of trapping women in violent marriages, as well as a potential increase in cases of abandonment and desertion, which are already high among spouses from India in the U.K.

High skills in focus

Ironically, all our angst has come to bear on a mere proposal of a cash bond for visitors — the alacrity of the Indian government in lodging its protest against it is remarkable. Much has been said and written about the contribution of the highly skilled Indian workforce and the robust growth of Indian investments in the U.K. Mr. Cameron’s visits to India in 2010 and February 2013 were marked by significant efforts to woo Indian industry and investment, assuring easier visa grants to Indian business in the U.K. However, scant attention has been paid to the restrictions imposed on the freedom of employment and mobility of a large number of Indian citizens, whose economic and remittance contributions to the Indian economy may not be worthy of a Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebration but who sustain their families and livelihoods through low-skilled labour abroad. This is especially true of the women migrating as domestic and health-care workers: a discourse around their work and presence abroad has simply not been forthcoming in the policy space.

West Asian example

The Indian government attended rather belatedly to the severe exploitation faced by Indian migrant workers, including women domestic workers, nannies and nurses, in West Asia; the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs set up the Indian Community Welfare Fund, for overseas Indian workers in distress, only as recently as 2009. It is imperative that the government leverage its bilateral relations and engage in constructive dialogue with the U.K. not only to highlight the discrimination posed by the proposed cash bond but also the consequences that changes in the latter’s immigration system have for a large number of Indian workers and residents in the U.K., mostly “low-skilled,” and in particular, women.

Steps to help

As far as the Indian government itself is considered it can think of simple but effective steps like: ensuring prompt and fair assistance from the High Commission in cases of distress, especially the issue and renewal of passports; establishing a toll-free hotline for emergency assistance; better enforcement and utilisation of funds for women deserted by their spouses abroad; appointment of an ombudsman, who can monitor cases of Indian diplomats misusing their diplomatic immunity, especially in cases of trafficking and exploitation of migrant domestic workers, and effective monitoring and regulation of recruitment agencies in operation. These can go a long way in instituting best practices in emigrant welfare.

(Bhoomika Joshi was a Queen Elizabeth House scholar in migration studies at the University of Oxford, 2010-11, and has worked with various migrant rights’ advocacy groups in the U.K.)

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