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March 26, 2021

Kalayaan client and survivor of slavery on why access to work is crucial to enable independence and sustainable freedom

In 2019, Kalayaan launched our campaign to let survivors of slavery work whilst their claims are under consideration by the Home Office. Our research found that access to decent work supports survivors in their recovery and prevents them from being drawn into destitution where they are at real risk of being re-exploited. Since then, we have been delighted to have the support of 60 groups and individuals including MPs, trade unions, academics and think tanks who stand with us in calling for a change in policy. The Anti-Slavery Commissioner also mooted the idea of a pilot to trial the effectiveness of such a scheme.

The government’s response has been to await the findings of their review into letting asylum seekers work before considering whether to bring forward a specific scheme for survivors of slavery. At time of writing, this review has been ongoing for 3 years.

As the government embarks on a new programme of works to transform the National Referral Mechanism and seeks to lessen the dependency on this temporary support structure whilst centring the needs of survivors, Kalayaan has joined forces with Anti-Slavery International, ATLEU, Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, Coop, FLEX, The Sophie Hayes Foundation and Survivor Alliance to set out the simple and achievable way in which the government could permit survivors access to work. Our briefing, out today to mark the 6-year anniversary of the Modern Slavery Act, sets out how this could be achieved without the need to amend primary legislation.

You can download our briefing here.

Earlier this week, we found time to catch up with a client of Kalayaan who was granted refugee status just as the pandemic took hold to hear first-hand how she felt about being denied the right to work in the NRM. Her name is Maria* and this is her story…

Can you tell me a bit about your life before you came to the UK and why you chose to go abroad for work?

My life before I came to the UK was very difficult. I lived in the countryside far outside of the city. Growing up, there was always a conflict between the government and rebels which made life very dangerous for me and my family. I had a few jobs working in my country but my income was not enough to survive and my family and I struggled for our every-day needs. We struggled to buy enough food, clothes, to pay for electricity and school fees. That’s why I decide I had to go to another country to work and to see a new opportunity to help my family. It was so hard to leave them but I don’t have choice because I can’t find a good job and good income in my country.

When you entered the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and found out that you would not be able to work, how did it make you feel?

I did not know what life I was looking for. At the time, I was so stressed and depressed because I knew I had nothing but I had to support my family. From that time until now, I have been very depressed. It has been so hard to recover and to change my feelings, my mind, and even, all activities, are lost. I did not want to communicate with anyone. I did not want to go outside. I felt blank. I did not know anything or have anything to do.

What impact did not working have on you whilst you waited for a final decision on your slavery claim?

It’s a big and miserable life I had, because first, it was very hard to find a friend to understand me, to find someone to stay with. The government offered me accommodation but they said it would be outside of London but all my friends are there. It was very hard to budget the £37 I got from Hestia for my allowance. I needed to keep some money for me, to put money on my phone so I could stay in contact with my family back home. I also had my own personal expenses and items, and had to pay for transportation to meet my appointments, with my solicitor, with Hestia, with my GP, my counsellor. At the time we could go out because it was before the pandemic. The £37 was not enough to get all my food, and the things I needed. I was ashamed because of my situation. I needed support so I had to ask for help from my friends as it was so hard to stand for myself. I had friends who were in the NRM who had kids and family in hospital who needed money for medication. They were so desperate they worked but hid this because they didn’t have the right permission but needed to support their families. Me, I was too scared to work so I waited for years for a second (conclusive grounds) decision but my family lost everything. We all have different problems in our lives, with kids, hospital bills, if we could work we could help support ourselves and pay taxes too.

What difference would it have made to you and your family if you could have worked whilst you were waiting on a decision?

First, if I was allowed to work, I can support my family because that is the main thing. That is why I went abroad. I am the only one supporting my family. I need to work to help them survive and to help for their every-day needs. Working would have kept myself busy too, but I spent a lot of time thinking about the past and not able to look to my future. I had trouble sleeping, I don’t like thinking about it now and what my life became. My mind was so busy but I couldn’t do anything. I sleep better now and have a normal appetite. I am still struggling to find a job because of the pandemic but my heart is relaxed and I feel so much better now and my family is so much happier too. I used to take medication to help my mental health but I don’t have to do that anymore. I always used to think, one day I will be able to work. I had to wait 3 years before I was permitted to work when the government accepted my claim and believed I was a survivor. I thought the government would help me when I reported my case but they didn’t believe me at the beginning which made me feel like I was dying, I can’t explain how it made me feel.

Why do you think it is important for survivors to have access to work whilst they are waiting for their claims to be decided by the Home Office?

We need to be able to support ourselves as survivors. We need to support our families. We need to overcome our past and what we have gone through. I had problems with my mind and with my body, it was the stress of everything that had happened. If survivors could work, we would have a new opportunity to help ourselves and our families. We could also contribute to the country and pay taxes. Our families would be safe and happy and this would make us happy too.

*This survivor’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Watch below to hear from Maria speak at the Human Trafficking Foundation’s Forum on the importance of access to work (May 2021).