Diplomats and the abuse of domestic workers – chipping away at their immunity
It may come as quite some shock to learn that some of the individuals most at risk of being subjected to modern day slavery are the cleaners and housekeepers of supposedly some of the most upstanding members of society – diplomats.
In recent years there have been numerous examples of exploitation by diplomatic envoys which have raised the profile of some of the most at risk employees. Domestic workers have been forced to work exploitative hours, with limited access to the outside world with total dependency on their employers.
The diplomatic immunity afforded to ambassadors and their staff during their time in post adds another layer to the imbalance of power already present in the relationship between domestic workers and their employers.
The case of Cherrylyn Reyes
This immunity, however, may be under threat following a judgment of the Supreme Court earlier this year which cast doubt over whether immunity still applies to diplomats in their employment of domestic staff.
The court heard the appeal of Cherrylyn Reyes, a Filipino who worked as a domestic servant who, in 2011, worked at the home of Jarallah Al-Malki, a member of the diplomatic staff of the Saudi Arabian embassy in London.
Reyes alleged that she was forced to work 17-hour days for less than minimum wage, had her passport confiscated, and was subjected to racial abuse. While the court did not decide if Reyes was actually subjected to the alleged exploitation, it did rule upon diplomatic protection in a judgment which could have consequences for all future cases of this sort.
Why domestic workers of diplomats are so at risk
In his summary of the judgment, one of the judges, Lord Sumption said there is reason to believe that “exploitative employment practices under cover of diplomatic status is a recurring problem both in this country and elsewhere.”
Reyes came to the country on a visa which she only obtained because she was able to demonstrate she would be working for Al-Maiki. This is known as a tied visa where a person’s immigration status is wholly dependent on their employer.
The practice of issuing tied visas, and the UK’s failure to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention, which would extend criminal and health and safety legislation to households employing workers, puts domestic workers in the UK at a higher risk of being exploited.
These factors lead to the isolation of domestic workers and increase their dependency on their employers – both of which increase the risk of exploitation. The immunity afforded to diplomats increases this risk even further as it removes the possibility of sanction.
What has the Reyes case changed?
The judges ruled that, as Al-Maiki had left his post and returned to Saudi Arabia in 2014, he was only afforded a narrower protection, known as ‘residual immunity’. This only applied to acts performed in the exercise of “official functions” which the judges decided did not extend to the employment of domestic workers. This opens up the possibility for exploitative diplomats to be sued by their victims once they have left their post.
However, perhaps the most important part of the judgment was what was said in addition to the ruling. Three of the five judges stated that they believed the employment of staff in the residences of diplomats would not be covered by diplomatic immunity – even during their time in post.
As the court had already made the decision based on the fact that Al-Maiki was no longer in his diplomatic post, the court did not technically rule on this point and therefore the opinions of the three judges are not binding. They do, however, leave open the possibility that domestic workers who are exploited by current diplomatic staff may in the future be able to claim against their employers while they are still in active diplomatic roles.
In recognition of this possibility, the lawyer who represented Reyes said after the judgment that it “represents a significant inroad into chipping away at the veil of immunity that has so far shielded diplomats who have trafficked their domestic workers”.
Reyes’ claim for compensation is still yet to be decided and her case will now go back to the Employment Tribunal where it started six years ago. Her journey to the Supreme Court, however, looks thoroughly worthwhile and not just for her but for countless others in her position.
If you are concerned about modern slavery in your community, you can contact your local police force on 101 or the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700. If in doubt, please report it. There is more information on the National Crime Agency website, here.
*Aidan Shipman is part of René Cassin’s Modern Slavery Campaign Group, find out more about how to get involved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org