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June 27, 2024

“They’re profiting from the misery of the world”: How the Hinduja exploitation trial in Switzerland is a typical case study of the exploitation of domestic workers in the UK and around the world

by Sophie Levack, Policy Officer at Kalayaan

Last week, news broke that some members of the Hinduja family – the UK’s wealthiest family, worth an estimated £37 billion – were on trial in Switzerland for exploitation and human trafficking.

The case focused on the treatment of the family’s domestic workers in Geneva, and reports mention the frighteningly low wages (£7 per day), lack of freedom to leave the home, excessively long hours (18 hours per day) and confiscation of passports. While on Friday they were acquitted of the crime of trafficking, the family members will face custodial sentences for exploiting their domestic workers.

Sadly, at Kalayaan, we hear of many cases like this one, happening right here in the UK. While many employers will treat their domestic workers lawfully and fairly, many of our clients will have experienced harrowing abuse and exploitation at the hands of their employers.

What is very telling in these accounts is how these employers justify their treatment to themselves, their employees, and in the case of the Hinduja family, to a court. Indeed, the defence put forward by the Hinduja family members shows a fundamental lack of recognition of domestic work as work. (And, indeed, calling domestic workers ‘servants’ or ‘helpers’ does not help.)

For example, the defence disputed the charge of the long working hours by claiming that watching a film with the children could not be deemed to be work. Obviously, they failed to acknowledge that the worker was not watching the film; they would have been caring for the children. Certainly, this means they would have been responsible for anything that could happen to the children while they were under their care – a fact many domestic workers are reminded of in no uncertain terms by abusive employers.

Moreover, the insistence that the family treated their workers with ‘dignity’ while trying to justify the low wages is all too common. It is hard to fathom what they could be referring to here. The absence of any reported physical or sexual abuse does not detract from the abuse these workers still experienced while in the employ of this family. Such a defence is deeply troubling when considering the allegations made by the prosecution: that workers were not allowed outside of the family home without permission, that they were paid £7 a day – money which was paid into an Indian bank account to which the workers did not have access while they worked in Switzerland, and that they typically worked 18-hour days, even longer when the family hosted receptions. There is no dignity in exploiting domestic workers this way.

Some of the media coverage also rightly highlighted the power imbalance between the Hinduja family members and the domestic workers, and quoted the prosecutor as saying that the Hinduja family was “profiting from the misery of the world.”

The life of a domestic worker – even when they are being treated well – is not an easy one to choose. Often these individuals and their families are destitute and struggle to find work at home that can support themselves and their families, pay for school fees, or cover a loved one’s medical treatment. Faced with few options, many women choose to take a job as a domestic worker in a country they do not know, of which they do not speak the language, hoping that the pay will be more than what they can earn back home. In doing so, they leave their parents, spouses, children and everything they know behind, and often don’t see them – or even speak to them – for years at a time. Regularly, these workers’ vulnerability is exploited. Some are not paid the wages they were promised for their work, and depending on where in the world they work, some are trapped in those countries unable to seek help.

The Hindujas’ lawyers argued that the workers knew what they were signing up to and that they were “grateful to the Hindujas for offering them a better life.”  Domestic work is work. It must be given the recognition it deserves. This work should be fairly remunerated, and workers given options to hold their employers to account when they ill-treat their workers.

This kind of exploitation occurs around the world and flourishes where the law fails to protect domestic workers’ rights. Migrant domestic workers can only work in the UK if they are accompanying an existing employer for whom they have worked abroad. These workers are admitted to the UK on a 6-month, non-renewable Overseas Domestic Worker visa. In principle, these workers should have the same labour rights as you and me, and any other worker in the UK. In practice, employers of domestic workers are not subjected to labour inspections because this work takes place in private households, and the short-term visa regime means that it is virtually impossible for a domestic worker to bring an employment claim against their employers before they are made to leave the UK.

This hasn’t always been the case. Before 2012, the original Overseas Domestic Worker visa was renewable so long as the worker could show that there was a demand for their work, and eventually, they could apply for settled status. Such a visa did not eradicate exploitation altogether, but it empowered domestic workers to enforce their rights and leave bad employers before the treatment became exploitative. Since the creation of the restrictive visa in 2012, Kalayaan has received significant increase in reports of treatment that amounts to exploitation and modern slavery.

Kalayaan has been campaigning for over 12 years for the pre-2012 visa to be re-instated, and we implore the incoming Government to engage with Kalayaan’s evidence from our frontline work and what it clearly shows us.

A detailed look at Kalayaan’s campaign and the fight to prevent the exploitation of domestic workers in the UK can be found in our report 12 Years of Modern Slavery, published on 16 June 2024, on International Domestic Workers’ Day.