Journey Into The Minds Of London's Migrant Domestic Workers On One Of These Powerful Soundwalks

By Maire Rose Connor Last edited 6 months ago
Journey Into The Minds Of London's Migrant Domestic Workers On One Of These Powerful Soundwalks
Dr Ella Parry-Davies, the brains behind the project

"Even now that I'm almost two decades as a migrant domestic worker, loneliness always comes back."

Helen admits, her voice strained with emotion as the faint sounds of birdsong and children's voices evaporate into the background.

The audio was recorded at a picnic party in Kensington Gardens, organised jointly by the Filipino Domestic Workers Association and GABRIELA London, a grassroots-based alliance for Filipino women. And the Royal Park is where it's intended to be experienced, as part of a series of soundwalks that give a voice to just a few of the thousands of migrant domestic workers living in the UK and in Lebanon.

The Kensington Gardens bandstand. Image by Matt Brown via the Londonist Flickr pool

The soundwalks are part of a three-year research project called Homemakers: Urban Expertise in the Philippine Diaspora, lead by Dr Ella Parry-Davies at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Each one was recorded in a place that's meaningful to the speaker, part of Dr Parry-Davies' efforts to maximise the storyteller's agency (the featured worker also co-edits the recording).

Four of the soundwalks take place in London. In each of these recordings, the pain, anger, and resilience of each woman is palpable. As Helen explains, "there's no security for the domestic migrant worker". The UK operates a tied-visa system for domestic migrant workers, which means they are unable to change employer while in the country. These workers all too often face the choice of staying in an abusive and exploitative work environment or leaving to face the risk of deportation.

St Paul's Cathedral. Image by Michelle Roussell via the Londonist Flickr pool.

Many Filipino domestic workers come to the UK via the Middle East, where they travelled to work as nannies and housekeepers for wealthy families. These workers often come from poverty-stricken backgrounds and some, like Alexandra — who tells her story at St Paul's Cathedral, a place of comfort and prayer for this migrant worker — are their families' sole breadwinners.

Alexandra "grabbed the opportunity" to work in Qatar. Once there, though, she endured horrendous physical abuse at the hands of her employer, who forced her to work "24/7" and withheld her wages. She made a vow that, if she ever got the opportunity to come to London, she would run away. And so, when the family did travel to the capital, she and another worker made their escape.

For me, I don't want again… what happened to me in Qatar, I don’t want here in London the same.

The peacocks in Holland Park. Image by Matt Brown via the Londonist Flickr pool

Ann also came to London via Qatar. She tells her story in Holland Park, where she made the decision to flee her verbally and physically abusive employers. Ann knows that her former employers are in the area for a family holiday, and she hopes she'll see them.

I want to prove to them now that I'm not nothing. I can do anything for me, and for my family.

She expresses a desire to see the young children she cared for — her "favourite twins" — and talks about her own children, who live back in the Philippines and have not see her for four years.

It's hard for me, but I need to sacrifice for the sake of the future of my children.

The statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus. Image by Matt Brown via the Londonist Flickr pool

Alone, penniless and undocumented in a foreign country, it's vital that women like Ann find to access community support once they've left their employers. Amara fled with only a pair of pyjamas to her name, and spent her first night of freedom outside in the cold, by the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. This is where she tells her story.

We, domestic workers, we are the ones who were abused, we are the ones who were trafficked, we are the ones who’ve been exploited… You know, they treat us like we are criminals.

As part of the Voice of Domestic Workers campaign group, which seeks "rights, freedom, and justice for domestic migrant workers", Amara is working to change that.

So too is Helen:

When I found activism, it changed me a lot. In one organisation, if you go together and understand each other, fighting for one purpose, it's a fulfilment. It’s a great feeling. Because you are changing for the better.

All of the soundwalks mentioned above — plus others besides — can be accessed via the Homemaker Sounds website, where you can find out more about the research project. They are free to access, and each track comes with its own map, instructions and customisable alternatives for reasons of access, inclusivity and safety.

Last Updated 13 March 2020