Where there is no sunlight: one worker’s story

By: Khadija Najlaou

A domestic worker from Morocco, Najilaou is now working in London and tells the story of her struggle for rights and dignity.

I am 44 years old but I have only spent seven years at school. My family was very poor and they couldn’t afford to send me to school so I left just after primary school. My father earned 200 DHS/week (approx. £34) as a security guard. I have three brothers and four sisters and sometimes we had nothing to eat.

At the age of 15, I was forced to work in a garment factory 13 hours a day 6 days a week. My salary was less than £4 a week. Life became even harder when my father passed away in 1995. I didn’t even see sunlight in the factory. I felt like a slave trapped in a building with no way to escape because my family would starve if I didn’t work.

In 2000, my mother became very ill. I couldn’t afford her hospitalization, so in 2003 I decided to work abroad as a domestic worker. I went to Dubai because this was the fastest way to secure a job in another country. I worked for a good family there, but the hours were long for only £180 a month. In 2004, I came to the UK but just two years later, my mother passed away. I begged my employer to let me go home, but she refused. She said there was no need for me to go home because my mother was already dead. All I could do was cry.

In 2007, A friend told me that in the UK I had the right to change employer. I found a new job, and then another one, but I was still working long hours. When I became ill the doctor said I was overworked and advised me to rest. But how could I rest? I asked my employer if I could go to a friend’s house and rest. She wasn’t happy. She put all my clothes in a black bin bag and I was fired. Things didn’t get better after that. My next employer accused me of stealing £225 and a very expensive leather jacket. She later found the money and the jacket, but I felt I couldn’t stay after that. I was lucky to find another employer shortly after that so I was able to renew my visa. However, everyday it became harder to work in isolation with no voice, no rights and nowhere to go.

Finally, in 2009 I joined Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW). It’s a self-help, advocacy and campaigning organisation run by migrant domestic workers, representing more than 300 London-based domestic workers from all over the world. We may all come from different countries but we share similar stories of suffering back home and different forms of abuse in the UK. Slavery is very much alive in the life of many migrant domestic workers. We work very long hours for very low salaries trying to support families back home.

At J4DW, we work together to improve our living and working conditions.We campaign to be properly recognized and respected as workers because we contribute to the economy of both our home and host country.

We are now campaigning to reverse the recent changes made to the UK visa conditions of overseas domestic workers. Since April 6th 2012 migrant domestic workers coming to the UK with their employers will be given a 6-month visa and after this time they have to leave the country. They don’t have the right to change employer, even if their employer is abusive. Previous rules allowed us to change jobs and move to a different household without losing our immigrant status.

These changes sadden me because even if I won’t be affected (I was in the UK prior to April 6), they will leave many of my fellow domestic workers open to abuse and exploitation. If their employer doesn’t pay their wages, makes them work 18 hours a day seven days a week or beats them, they won’t be able to access help. And if they leave the house and try to find another job, they will become undocumented and risk deportation. I am fighting along with my fellow domestic workers to stop this unjust situation.

J4DW (along with Kalayaan, Unite the Union, TUC, Anti-slavery International, Christian Aid, Amnesty International, and Children Unite) has been campaigning for the ratification of the Domestic Workers Convention 189. UK was one of 8 countries including Sudan to abstain from supporting an International Labour Organisation convention on protection for domestic workers, claiming there were already good safeguards in place, despite these protections having been removed.

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