How Neoliberalism Influences Immigration Policies in Modern Western States

In nowadays’ society, governments and political elites are influenced by the neoliberal thought: The influx of public money into banking industry, the collaborations between national governments and private corporations, the divergence of public funds into the private sector, accumulation of capital, and the dominance of corporate sectors, are typical attributes of a neoliberal behaviour1 . Governments often act according to this ideology: They emulate corporations and work according to the market logic of efficiency, competitiveness and profitability.2

The neoliberal thought is particularly visible in the regulation of immigration. One example can be found in the immigration laws of the United Kingdom: Since April 2012, a new immigration policy called the “Overseas Domestic Worker Visa” has been implemented.  It is specifically designed for migrant domestic workers coming to the UK.

A lot of domestic workers already have to face no guaranteed weekly day of rest, low wages, excessively long working hours, physical, mental, or sexual abuses, as well as restrictions in their freedom of movement3.   The “ODW” puts migrant domestic workers even under a bigger risk:  The visa regulates workers entering the United Kingdom with their non-British employer.4 Domestic workers only get a permission to enter the country, if they have their employer’s name stamped on the visa. The migrant would become illegal resident if he/her would leave the respective employer4. In addition, the domestic workers living in the UK with this type of visa do not get public funds, or services5.

There are various cases that demonstrate how employers in the UK abuse migrant domestic workers, and how the employees are not able to change their workplace without becoming illegal in the country.  Kalayaan, a charity organization in the UK reported in 2015, that since the implementation of the ODW, a fewer number of workers are coming to ask for support.
In 2014 and 2015, only 64 workers with tied visa came to their organization, reporting about their situations. 28 per cent were physically abused, 68 per cent did have no right to leave the house by themselves, 70 per cent did not have any time off, and 66 per cent were kept from possessing their passport. Compared to the non-tied workers, the number of abused domestic workers with tied visa is significantly higher. Kalayaan also reported that the reduced number of domestic workers coming to ask for help is caused by the restrictions in movement, and the fear of becoming illegal in the country.


Human Rights Watch, Kalayaan and AntiSlavery International- the main organizations that deal with migrant domestic workers and the ODW in the United Kingdom, reported about various cases that suffered physical and psychological abuses or lack of freedom of movement.
The story of Rupa- an Indian woman working for an Indian family is the perfect example of the consequences of the tied visa:  Her employers brought her to the UK for 6 months. While she was in London, she was paid 26 pounds a week, she had to sleep on the floor, and she did not have any time off. Furthermore she was physically abused. Rupa escaped from the family. She found her way to the charity organization “Kalayaan” and asked for help as her passport had been also taken away. “Kalayaan” found out that she was tied to her employers with the ODW

“We had to explain to Rupa that she was almost certainly on the tied ODW visa, which prohibited her from working for anyone other than the employer with who she entered the UK. When she asked us to support her getting the passport back we had to explain that involving the police would almost certainly result in her being detained and her passport confiscated until she left the UK. […].Had Rupa come to Kalayaan before April 2012, when migrant domestic workers had the right to change employer we could have worked with the police to secure the return of her passport, supported her to challenge her employers for unpaid wages and helped her to find a good job. She wouldn’t have had recourse to public funds or been able to renew her visa without employment but she would have had a chance at justice 5.”

Neoliberal ideologies are influencing the decision-making processes and the governance of modern Western states. The way neoliberalism has influenced the implementation of ODW is very visible: Through the immigration of wealthy people, the British government can maximize its profit as they contribute to the market. However, domestic workers, who are not profitable enough for the market, are not introduced into society: Therefore the government minimizes  the costs and it does not have to spend money on public services for them.

The neoliberal ideology of seeing the population as a body of shareholders is highly visible in the case of British immigration policies. Already in 1990, Hugh William Mackay, a British politician and Conservative member of the House of Lords remarked:

„Looking at our national interest, if wealthy investors, skilled workers and others with the potential to benefit our economy were unable to be accompanied by their domestic staff they might not come here at all but take their money and skills to other countries only too keen to welcome them4.”

The ideology of making profit and reducing costs can be also seen in the British Points-Based System visa system that puts non- EEA visa applicants into five categories: A minimum threshold of points has to be reached to make the visa application successful. The category that receives the most points  is for ‘high-value migrants’ and covers only the entry of entrepreneurs, investors, and those very few people who come under the ‘exceptional talent’ visa.7“

Categorizing visa applicants as „High value” shows the logic behind those policies: People are related to a material value that brings profitability to the national market and the government. Migrant domestic workers instead who do not contribute to the market have a “less value”.   Through the ODW, domestic workers are not perceived as human beings, but as a “private property” of the household or family.  The ODW legally authorizes a restriction of freedom of movement. Moreover, the fundamental and universal right of changing employer is violated by the tied-visa regulation. The authorisation of controlling and “owning” a migrant domestic worker makes it easier for the employers to domestically abuse without being punished by the law.

The ODW in the United Kingdom is a great example that through a neoliberal ideology states have become “companies” which attempt to facilitate entrepreneurial activities and accumulate capital, instead of redistributing wealth in form of public service, and putting the real value of human beings at stake of their political agenda.



Hannah Hoehn is currently the Brussels representative of the Graduates of Democracy. She is working in Brussels as Policy and Programme Intern at the European Foundation Centre and will start a traineeship at the European Parliament in March.

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