Domestic workers are being coerced into working during lockdown

13th May 2020

“It felt like their comfort was more important than our lives”, Pauline* explains. Pauline is a nanny who worked for a family for two years. When word of lockdown began to circulate, she was told of their plans to temporarily hire out a countryside hotel with friends.

“I told them I wanted to self-isolate; I didn’t want to risk returning home to my mother in a body bag.”

Despite the parents not having essential nor demanding work, (pilates was a main event on the daily agenda), they moved with a small army of rotating chefs, housekeepers, nannies and personal trainers driving up from London, to an area with a largely elderly population.

“I had been working for 24 hours a day for 32 days straight. I didn’t feel comfortable with the plan, as it flouted lockdown restrictions,” she explains.

I realised if I didn’t comply my job would not be waiting for me when they returned

“But I realised if I didn’t comply my job would not be waiting for me when they returned.”

Pauline had daily anxiety about the staff moving in and out of the house, many of which were over 50 years old. “They were even trialling new nannies when we were there,” she adds.

When one staff member returned to work after catching the virus, they were publicly undermined, being told: “Well, you don’t look sick.”

Having now left the job, she says she now not only feels anger at the blatant lack of regard for the safety of the staff – who were not provided PPE – but has ongoing fear for her former colleagues.

It felt like living in a luxury prison

“They aren’t offered furlough. Now back in London, most travel to work every day. The family lives in a bubble where the rules don’t apply; they believe privilege exempts them from getting sick. It felt like living in a luxury prison.” 

Pauline’s experience is not an isolated occurrence. Last week a nanny from New York told The Cut she personally knew of “15 nannies from the Caribbean who had died of the virus”. In the UK, the domestic worker industry — made up predominantly of nannies, cleaners and carers — is almost impossible to accurately quantify.

While Pauline had a contract, many employees work cash-in-hand through agencies or word of mouth. For people outside of it, the lockdown has highlighted how unregulated and irregular the industry is.

Many domestic workers now find themselves abruptly out of work, as the millions of families who rely on household assistance are forced to close their doors on them. Some cleaners can register for the self-employed loan but cannot access it until June. The loan also requires that they earned regular income from 2018-19, which excludes cleaners working on a zero-hour contract, or new workers.

If you don’t get help you have to put your health second

“Working in homes has been very stressful and upsetting. But if you don’t get help you have to put your health second,” says one self-employed cleaner. None of his employers even attempted to cover his wage during the March to June gap. One cleaner took a job in a lettuce factory where there was no social distancing, and someone spat in her face, Diane Greenwood, director of cleaners union the Domestic Cleaning Business Network explains.

I approached several cleaning agencies with an inquiry. I voiced that I was not a key worker but wanted someone to come to my house each day to clean. “Do I need to provide any PPE?” I asked. “No,” was the response, despite the fact that the price of PPE has quadrupled since lockdown and, to keep themselves protected with regular changes of PPE is increasingly unaffordable and unrealistic for many cleaners.

I also questioned if I must declare if any of my family are showing symptoms. One told me: “Only if you wish.” I was also assured that if I, or my cleaner, were to become ill, neither I nor the agency must pay them.

Nannies and employers haven’t been given clear information which has led to lots of confusion

For nannies, if they only work for one family, they cannot be registered as self-employed, and are now reliant on their employer’s individual decision whether to offer furlough.

Many of those who have received furlough or continued pay from their employer’s pockets are forced to keep working. Maria Culley from the UK Nannies Matter Campaign says: “No one size fits all guidelines have been given. Nannies and employers haven’t been given clear information which has led to lots of confusion.” 

Individual families have been left to decide whether their childcare is essential and if financial obligations are mandatory. Pauline believes the government should have defined a blanket rule that only key workers need domestic staff.

I tested negative but was dismissed regardless

“A day before I was given notice, I saw my job being advertised by the same agency who placed me,” says Sally* a single nanny in her thirties from west London, who told me how after developing coronavirus symptoms, she was immediately let go of.

“I was forced to pay for three private corona tests — each at £249 — which tested negative, but was dismissed regardless.”

Sally was her employer’s 32nd nanny and they had 15 staff at the time, including security and chefs. Sally says the family were known as “hire and fire” employers. She was paid a statutory sick pay (SSP) of £94 a week for only three weeks, and is now paid nothing. The parents she worked for are incredibly affluent — “billionaires”, she notes. As a result of being fired for voicing her corona symptoms, Sally is now unable to pay rent and is reliant on food banks.

They have a private car, but I was told I would need to walk the distance between Battersea and Kensington each day

Certain households are using this collapse of the domestic work industry as an opportunity to capitalise off cheap — even free — domestic work. Sally tells me how friends who are still working are expected to walk to work to offer cleaning, nannying and homeschooling duties while both parents are present, often for £10 an hour or less.

Sally was offered a job in Battersea. “They have a private car, but I was told I would need to walk the distance between Battersea and Kensington each day. I have 11 years in the industry and used to bring home at least £4,000 a month,” she explains. She also voiced to me numerous accounts of nannies being required to work under furlough — meaning free childcare — and even having to return surplus money to their employer, thus capitalising from the scheme.

Tanya* has worked for six months for her current employer and, when lockdown began, she was told she must now become a live-in worker, despite being a single mum with a teenage son at home. They gave her a “strange explanation” as to why she can’t be furloughed, despite paying tax and receiving payslips. She was presented with a letter from a major nannying agency stating that nannies are key workers, which is not the case.

Tanya says while working live-in, she is micromanaged and has no routine for herself. She’s been plagued by anxiety for her own child’s welfare. “What if he gets ill? What about his mental health in isolation?” She was simply told: “He’s old enough.” 

It’s become 24/7 work

It’s also worth noting that the domestic industry is largely constituted by migrant workers. For the carers, housekeepers and nannies who already live-in, many are in the UK on an Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visa, so they are not eligible for government assistance, and in the current situation are unable to fly home.

One live-in carer and housekeeper from the Philippines, who has now gained citizenship through naturalisation, told me that as a live-in employee the barrier between work and rest is already blurred, but under lockdown it’s become entirely non-existent.

“I have no time off. No distance; it’s become 24/7 work. I have no freedom and it’s not being reflected in an increase in wages,” she explains.

“As a carer my role is to take responsibility. I can’t just turn that role off.

“One of my friends in a similar situation was so depressed by the loneliness that she cut off all her hair. She was meant to fly home to the Philippines, but is now unable.”

She explains: “Many live-in domestic workers from the Philippines are still on ‘leave to remain’ visas, even after years of service here, and can’t apply for a self-employed loan or benefits.”

Migrant domestic workers are offering care to Britain’s elderly in their own homes for years, yet now have little negotiating power to dispute their new working conditions. They can’t leave their employer’s home or rely on support from other members of the family to give them breaks. “When I watch the clapping every Thursday, I don’t feel seen. I don’t feel like those claps are for us,” the carer adds.

They have no recourse to public funds and are at real risk of destitution, homelessness and exposure to coronavirus

Avril Sharp from Kalayaan, the UK’s leading charity protecting migrant domestic workers, says many workers are ending up in desperate situations. She says: “Some workers have been dismissed without cause or notice… they have no recourse to public funds and are at real risk of destitution, homelessness and exposure to coronavirus.” Those that have kept their jobs have “no bargaining power to challenge their employer, so some are having to endure longer work hours, a reduction in pay, psychological and sometimes physical abuse.”

Previous data by Kalayaan revealed that 85% of migrant domestic workers have experienced psychological abuse and 63% didn’t have regular access to food. This is not likely to have improved under lockdown.

In normal times, millions of us benefit from the service of domestic workers. Those who help raise our children, who keep our public spaces clean and safe and who care for our vulnerable.

The government is pushing difficult decisions on to individual families, meaning the fate of thousands of workers has become contingent on working for a considerate or respectful employer — many simply don’t.

The crisis highlights the government’s ignorance of how millions work in the gig economy, and relies on the assumption of an endless supply of disposable, low-skilled workers who don’t require protection.

When this is over, whether domestic workers should be there for us, is another question entirely.

13th May 2020