Serpentine Gallery exhibit pairs with campaign groups to raise awareness of abuse of domestic workers

The abuse suffered behind London homes’ closed doors was highlighted by an exhibit at the Serpentine Gallery combined with a walk for survivors in Hyde Park last week.

Hito Steyrel’s exhibition used artificial-intelligence to predict the future of plant life in Power Plants while highlighting social inequalities of the surrounding boroughs through Power Walks in collaboration with local campaign groups.

One campaign group, Voice of Domestic Workers (VODW) promotes rights of migrant domestic workers who are left vulnerable to modern slavery because of current laws, according to founder, Marissa Begonia.

Sophie*, a domestic worker rescued by VODW said: “When I joined the organisation, I found freedom.”

The Power Walk dispelled myths surrounding domestic work with educational talks and inspiring performances.

Migrant workers shared stories of their journeys to the UK from countries without work opportunities to earn money for their children, looked after by partners or other family members, to access education or medical care.

Mothers shared how their overseas work has put their children through university to become doctors, nurses and engineers, despite suffering as mothers not being able to raise their own children.

“I dream of becoming a normal mother (to be with children) and I am now a grandmother,” one member said.

“It is very difficult being away from children when you know they are going through difficult times at home.”

Severe lack of job opportunities and expensive services force these mothers and fathers to find work overseas, which they can do in the UK with a six-month visa.

“If you don’t have money in the Philippines they chase you out of hospital. If you don’t have money there is very little chance your family will survive,” one mother said.

“Without a domestic worker visa then we cannot pay for our children’s education in the Philippines.”

Although many have positive experiences in the UK, some employers exploit workers’ determination to provide for their families, with some forced to work 18-hour days with very little pay and in more severe cases subjected to sexual and physical abuse.

Such employers often keep workers beyond the limit on their visa and use fear of police as a means of control.

Ms Begonia, who suffered exploitation as a domestic worker herself, said: “We would not talk to other people, because our employers would always say to us ‘do not talk to people. The police will arrest you if you do’.”

UK laws changed in 2016 to allow domestic workers to change employers, but the domestic worker visa only lasts six months and many struggle to find new employment for the short period left on their visa, so in practice they remain tied to their employer.

Rights groups explain that maintaining the Overseas Domestic Worker Visa is crucial in both giving people opportunity to provide for their family, and providing a means of escape if found.

VODW builds links with domestic workers through word of mouth and outreach work at locations across London. It supports positive relationships with the police to help remove fear, while helping the police improve their approach to better support potential victims.

It also provides support to people escaping exploitative employment with food, clothes, education, temporary shelter and a weekly £30 allowance to pay for travel while they look for new employment.

It also supports people with referrals to the government’s support and identification system for victims of modern slavery, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), although members expressed concerns this is often not a good option for domestic workers.

Members explained that to receive support, people have to first prove that they have been trafficked and many struggle to provide this as they do not have medical evidence, proof of abuse and proof of unpaid wages since they have no bank account or payslips.

There was also concern expressed that the £5 a day allowance under the NRM was not enough to meet weekly food and travel costs.

Exhibition details found here

*Some names have been changed.

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