There are estimated to be more than 20,000 overseas domestic servants working in Britain (the exact figure is not known because the Home Office, the government department that deals with this, does not keep statistics). Usually, they have been brought over by foreign businessmen, diplomats or Britons returning from abroad. Of these 20,000, just under 2,000 are being exploited and abused by their employers, according to a London-based campaigning group which helps overseas servants working in Britain.
The abuse can take several forms. Often the domestics are not allowed to go out, and they do not receive any payment. They can be physically, sexually and psychologically abused. And they can have their passports removed, making leaving or "escaping" virtually impossible.
The sad condition of women working as domestics around the world received much media attention earlier this year in several highly publicised cases. In one of them, a Filipino maid was executed is Singapore after being convicted of murder, despite protests from various quarters that her guilt had not been adequately established.
Groups like Anti-Slavery International say other, less dramatic, cases are equally deserving of attention, such as that of Lydia Garcia, a Filipino maid working in London:"I was hired by a Saudi diplomat directly form the Philippines to work in London in 1989. I was supposed to be paid ￡120 but I never received that amount. They always threatened that they would send me back to my country."
Then there is the case of Kumari from Sri Lanka. The main breadwinner in her family, she used to work for a very low wage at a tea factory in Sri Lanka. Because she found it difficult to feed her four children, she accepted a job working as a domestic in London. She says she felt like a prisoner at the London house where she worked:"No days off - ever, no breaks at all, no proper food. I didn't have my own room; I slept on a shelf with a space of only three feet above me. I wasn't allowed to talk to anybody. I wasn't even allowed to open the window. My employers always threatened to report me to the Home Office or the police."
At the end of 1994 the British Government introduced new measures to help protect domestic workers from abuse by their employers. This included increasing the minimum age of employees to 18, getting employees to read and understand an advice leaflet, getting employers to agree to provide adequate maintenance and conditions, and to put in writing the main terms and conditions of the job (of which the employees should see a copy).
However, many people doubt whether this will successfully reduce the incidence of abuse. For the main problem facing overseas maids and domestics who try to complain about cruel living and working conditions is that they do not have independent immigrant status and so cannot change employer. (They are allowed in the United Kingdom under a special concession in the immigration rules which allows foreigners to bring domestic staff with them.) So if they do complain, they risk being deported.
Allowing domestic workers the freedom to seek the same type of work but with a different employer, if the so choose, is what groups like Anti-Slavery International are campaigning the Government for. It is, they say, the right to change employers which distinguishes employment from slavery.