Migrants, Multiculture, Our People

Migrant workers in the UK: The silence of the innocents

In their workplaces, 16% of Latin American women suffer abuse: from physical violence, insults and     to sexual harassment, verbal comments of sexual content, sexual abuse and even rape. They do not report them and when they happen, managers look the other way and the aggressors go unpunished.


Virginia Moreno Molina


There are many reasons why someone decides to leave their country: economic crisis, discrimination, abuse, persecution…

When these Latin American women decide to come to London to work, they do it with the hope that their personal and professional conditions will be better. They do not expect their nightmares to be repeated in the United Kingdom.

“You can’t even get help because they threaten you and you don’t speak English, so what are you going to do? Be homeless? You stay and they keep abusing you, and there is nothing you can do.”

This is one statement out of the hundreds that currently exist, many of them silenced by the fear of losing the little they have.

The report, called: “The Unheard Workforce: Experiences of Latin American migrant women in cleaning, hospitality and domestic work”, gives 326 cases of Latin American immigrant women who received support from the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) between 2015 and 2018 and who have experienced these types of situations. In an article previously published in The Prisma, “Inmigrantes Latinas, una fuerza laboral abusada y silenciada en el Reino Unido”, the alarming figures of this problem are presented.

According to the report, the most in-demand jobs for this community are in: the cleaning sector (69%), the hotel industry (5%) and housekeeping (8%), and Latin American women usually find these jobs through word of mouth, group chats or on social media.

Nevertheless, once they have found these jobs, the information that is given to them is sparse, with no documentation or explanation of the job’s terms and conditions.

Some women do not even know the name of their employer, or how to contact the company.

As a result, it is even easier for the employer to get away with violating their rights.

Beatings, insults…

Discrimination, bullying or harassment were experienced by 41% of those surveyed and they link this to the fact that their jobs are usually done at times outside of office hours and as a solitary worker.

In fact, the majority of cleaners are assigned a number of rooms or entire floors for them to do alone, with no colleagues or witnesses. The case of domestic workers is even worse as they work in private homes.

Verbal abuse is also common. Some 37% of those surveyed have experienced: threats, shouting, insults and taunting, both from managers and their own colleagues.

As well as this, the issue has even escalated to physical abuse (11%): pushing, pulling hair, grabbing by the arm, and even beatings, as in the following case.

“Diana (Peruvian, 55 years old) has been a domestic worker in Kensington and Chelsea for the past 15 years. She was diagnosed with cancer, which causes pain in her bones and muscles. Her GP had been issuing ‘unfit to work’ certificates for the past two years […], but the family had refused to accept them and to allow Diana to take sick leave. She would regularly be told “You can’t get sick. You can’t leave us”. In turn, the family took her to a private doctor who suggested a different treatment, which included an injection that was given to her against her will and without any information being provided in her own language: it was steroid hormones. […] Diana refused to continue with the treatment and sought advice from LAWRS. Diana was provided with a letter for her employer, who, upon reading it, started beating her and saying, “How dare you seek advice against us?”. Follow-up advice from LAWRS resulted in Diana being paid Statutory Sick Pay”.

Sexual harassment

The following statement represents 16% of women who, according to the report, suffer from sexual harassment and abuse at work.

“Cristina (Colombian, 45 years old) works as a cleaner from 8 to 11 pm in the premises of a multinational. Her workload started to be increased by her supervisor and, as a consequence, she experienced physical pain. When she tried to complain, she faced verbal abuse and mockery. One night, while cleaning the building’s showers, someone pushed her against the wall and touched her against her will. She reported the incident to her supervisor, but he said that, as the aggressor was working for the company that hires their cleaning company, nothing could be done”

This 16% includes: sexual comments on their appearance; pressure to go on a date; unwelcome sexual advances; spreading rumours about the person’s sex life; emails or text messages with unwanted explicit sexual content; kissing noises, men exposing themselves or carrying out sex acts; touching; attempted sexual assault; and rape.

As well as this, several women explained how some supervisors offer better conditions or more hours in exchange for sexual favours, terminating the contracts of women who refuse. Even though the majority of cases have tried to report them to the company at least once, their responses never lead to an investigation.

The only solution they have is to move them to another place, penalising the victim instead of the aggressor. In the case of Andrea, a 37-year-old Ecuadorian woman, she decided to resign.

“She was working in a hotel as a housekeeper. She was subjected to different types of verbal abuse and intimidation. One day, when she was changing the bed linen in one of the rooms, a male staff member entered the room abruptly. He grabbed her from behind and used his force to restrain her on the bed. He tried to rape her, but she managed to kick him and push him away. When she told him that she would tell the manager, he laughed. Andrea does not speak English, so she asked for a colleague’s help to speak to the manager. However, when speaking to the manager, the colleague refused to translate for her and instead told him that Andrea had not finished the room. In the end, the manager threatened to dismiss her for not doing her job. She came to LAWRS, where she was advised to report the incident to the police. After reporting, Andrea felt the urge to take a shower and wash her clothes. The police had not taken pictures and did not inform her that the clothes could constitute proof of the violence. The police closed the case due to lack of evidence”.

Trafficking and exploitation

In Latin America, it is estimated that around five million women and girls are subjected to human trafficking, while Brazilian women are within the top five nationalities that are trafficked to Europe (European Parliament, n.d.)

Although identification of Latin American victims of trafficking in the United Kingdom continues growing, discoveries in this study indicate that the number of unidentified cases is potentially much higher.

Within the sample, they found 11 cases of potential victims of labour exploitation: seven in the cleaning and hotel sectors, and four as domestic workers. These numbers represent 3% of the sample.

Also many women who are victims of this exploitation do not identify as such, due to trauma or lack of knowledge. This means that the numbers could be much higher, but they remain hidden by not reporting it.

One of the most striking cases in the report is that of Patricia, Isabella and Mariana, Colombian women aged 51, 45 and 56 respectively.

“They were contracted to carry out spring cleaning of several student accommodation buildings along with another 50 Latin American cleaners. The offered salary was between £90 and £120 per day. Once in the job, they found very different working conditions: they were required to work between 13 and 16 hours per day, 7 days a week; the hourly pay was £4.50, which was reduced if their work was found to be ‘below standard’; they slept in student rooms without blankets; and, working in remote locations and dependent on their employers for transportation, they had limited opportunities to purchase food. In addition, they were not given a copy of their contract […]. Patricia, Isabella and Mariana suffered discrimination, verbal abuse and threats. They were not allowed to visit the GP, even though they were experiencing acute pain in their hands and wrists due to the nature of the work […].”

On the topic, the study gives details and cases which show the horror that the Latin American women are experiencing, and that almost everyone is ignoring.

Next article: LAWRS recommendations for changing these situations.

(Translated by Donna Davison – Email: donna_davison@hotmail.com) – Photos: Pixabay

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