Supreme Court ruling highlights gap in the law for victims of trafficking

The Supreme Court has ruled that workers who are vulnerable due to their immigration status are not protected by race discrimination legislation.

Ms Taiwo and Ms Onu are migrant domestic workers who were treated so badly by their employers that they were officially recognised as victims of trafficking. In a ruling handed down on 22 June, the Supreme Court stated that the two women clearly deserve a remedy because of the grievous harm they suffered and urged parliament to revisit current legislation.

Ms Taiwo was employed as a domestic worker between February 2010 and January 2011. During this time she was subjected to ‘systematic and callous exploitation’. She was not given enough to eat and suffered dramatic weight loss. She was subjected to both physical and mental abuse by her traffickers. She was slapped and spat at and was made to share a room with her traffickers‘ two children. Ms Taiwo escaped her situation after a worker at the nursery the children attended noticed she was in a poor state and contacted social services on her behalf.

Ms Onu was employed as a domestic worker from July 2008 to June 2010 and during this time, she was threatened and abused by her employers. She was required to sign a contract which stated that she could not leave her job within a year or she would be reported to UK police and immigration. She was told that she would be arrested if she tried to run away and her passport was hidden from her. She was forced to work 84 hours a week on average, and was initially paid just £1.36 per hour.  Ms Onu escaped her situation after befriending a Jehovah’s witness who she spoke to through her traffickers’ letterbox.

The two women  brought a race discrimination claim against their employers arguing that they had been subjected to exploitation because they were foreign workers. They argued that no British worker would have been treated in the same way and so their employers had subjected them to race discrimination on the basis of nationality.

On appeal, it was held that Ms Taiwo and Ms Onu had been mistreated because of their status as migrant workers but that this did not form part of the definition of race discrimination. This was despite the fact that their nationality and immigration status were inextricably linked as only a non-British worker would require a migrant domestic worker visa and so believe themselves wholly dependent on their employer.

Jamila Duncan-Bosu, the women’s solicitor at ATLEU said:

‘It is entirely shameful that the government has failed to put in place an effective remedy for victims of trafficking and modern slavery. The Supreme Court decision highlights a gap in the law which must urgently be addressed.’

The Supreme Court expressed similar regret that the law as currently stated did not provide a complete remedy to Ms Taiwo and Ms Onu, inviting parliament to consider this state of affairs by revisiting the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

Both Ms Taiwo and Ms Onu had entered the UK under a migrant domestic worker visa obtained by their employers. They brought complaints under the Equality Act of direct and indirect race discrimination.

Read the judgment here