Two domestic workers who claim they were exploited by Jarallah al-Malki can now pursue case against former employer.
Two domestic workers who say they were exploited by a Saudi diplomat in London have won a major victory in the supreme court after judges ruled that their employer was no longer protected by diplomatic immunity.
The two women, Cherrylin Reyes and Titin Rohaetin Suryadi, worked for Jarallah al-Malki and his wife at their diplomatic residence in London. They say they were expected to work for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and were not allowed to leave the house unless escorted by family members.
Reyes attempted to pursue a tribunal case against Malki but was told by the court of appeal that she could not proceed because he was covered by diplomatic immunity. But now the supreme court has ruled that employing a domestic worker could not be said to fall within a diplomat’s official functions, so any immunity the Malkis had was lost when they ceased to be in post.
Reyes said she was pleased by the decision, which comes on Anti-Slavery Day. “I am delighted that the supreme court agrees that I can take my claim against the al-Malkis,” she said. “I know there are lots of other domestic workers who have suffered like me and I am delighted that they will be able to use this case to get redress, and that they will not have to wait as long as I have done.”
Diplomats bring an estimated 200-300 migrant domestic workers into the UK each year.
The supreme court decision came after a challenge brought by the charity the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU). It also implies that in similar cases immunity would not apply to diplomats even while they were in post.
A majority of justices accepted that employing someone in assumed conditions of slave labour amounted to trafficking – a “commercial activity” outside a diplomat’s official role, so usual diplomatic protections would not apply.
Malki, who declined to comment after the decision, was a diplomat for the Saudi embassy in London from 2010 until 2014. Reyes and Suryadi worked for him in 2011. As well as being forced to work 18-hour days Reyes alleges that her passport was taken and that she was denied contact with her family. She fled the house after contacting the police in March that year, she claims.
Suryadi says that her only payment was in two sums of £195 and £238 direct to her family and that she was not allowed to leave the house except to take the rubbish out. She says she escaped when Malki was away and his wife was asleep. The Home Office has recognised both women as victims of trafficking.
Amid fears that many domestic servants working for diplomats could be trafficked, Emmy Gibbs of ATLEU said that the ruling could have important wider consequences. “These appeals are hugely significant,” she said. “Overseas domestic workers working in diplomatic households and embassies are exceptionally vulnerable to exploitation and abuse including trafficking.”
The charity Kalayaan, which campaigns on the rights of migrant domestic workers and intervened in the case, warns that diplomatic immunity has created a culture of impunity. Zubier Yazdani, a solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn who represented Kalayaan, said: “These successful appeals represent a significant inroad into chipping away at the veil of immunity that has so far shielded diplomats who have trafficked their domestic workers.”
Each year, 16-17,000 “potentially vulnerable” domestic workers are given entry clearance to the UK. From 2003 to 2011, approximately 76% of these workers were women. Overseas domestic workers are typically required to carry out a range of tasks including cleaning, cooking, providing childcare and laundry services. Male domestic workers are often brought to the UK as drivers, cooks and private security guards.
Domestic workers predominantly originate from Africa and Asia, especially the Philippines, India and Indonesia. But the majority of workers enter the UK from a country that is not their country of origin, in particular from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE.
Many of these workers, including the two women who brought Wednesday’s case, work under a “kafala” arrangement, which is widespread in the Gulf region. “Kafala” legally ties migrant workers to their employers so the workers are not permitted to leave their jobs or the country without their employer’s permission.
James Ewins QC, the government-appointed independent reviewer of the arrangements for the overseas domestic worker visa, warns that the lives of overseas domestic workers currently exist “in the relative shadows” and that overseas domestic workers are “universally acknowledged to be in a position of special vulnerability”.
Ewins and the joint committee on human rights have recommended that domestic workers in diplomats’ households should be directly employed by the mission, since state immunity is more limited. However, to date the government has refused to sanction such an approach.
Reyes said that she had wanted to bring the case on behalf of other migrant domestic workers and added: “I see myself as a fighter. Bringing this case has made me stronger.”