Waling Waling Picnic in Regent’s Park for Margaret Healy’s birthday, October 2021. It was the group’s first face-to-face gathering since the outbreak of COVID-19 in London. Photo credit: Annelise Orleck, with the kind permission of Waling Waling.

On a warm, wet London Saturday, a group of Filipina women meet in Regent’s Park. They are joined by a few friends from North and West Africa, several small children, and a couple of men recording the event on camera. They spread blankets on the grass which they quickly cover with plates of home-made food—spring rolls and noodle dishes, chicken curries, seasoned greens, and all kinds of cakes. 

The gathering is for members of Waling Waling, a self-help group for migrant domestic workers created in 1984 to campaign for the restoration of domestic worker visas a few years after the Tory government ended them. This group is a proto-union of migrant domestic workers—almost all the members are undocumented through no fault of their own. For most of them it is because British law changed after they arrived. They have come to the park to celebrate the birthday of Margaret Healy, an Irish human rights activist who has, for forty years, been at the forefront of struggles to win rights and greater safety for migrant domestic workers in Britain. 

This is the first time since Covid-19 hit London in the spring of 2020 that Waling Waling’s members have been able to gather in person. They are thrilled to see each other’s faces, to share food and music provided by Sarah who is an 8-year-old violinist and the daughter of a long-time Waling Waling activist from Benin named Viviane Abayomi Noutai. They listen intently to updates on Waling Waling campaigns. It’s a sign of life and hope—a return to the community they love and value.

A younger generation of activists has been using Zoom throughout the pandemic—to keep up their organizing and to assist Waling Waling members put out of work during the lockdowns. But Zoom isn’t the same. “You can’t build a campaign when you can’t see people face-to-face,” Healy tells me. The women’s excitement at being together is palpable. 

People were without enough food, Waling Waling chairwoman Angie Garcia tells me. They faced eviction and deportation. Also, their immigration status meant they could not access Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) because the British Immigration Act of 2016 requires that healthcare workers, teachers, landlords, and bankers seek information on immigration status and immediately report it to the British government before providing services. Failure to do so can result in fines, or even imprisonment.

In such dire conditions, the activists tell me, they could not afford to stop their work during lockdown. Khadija Najlaoui, one of the group’s lead organizers, is diabetic and was told by her doctor in March 2020 that she had to stay inside until there was a vaccine. “But I didn’t stop my activities. I kept doing it on Zoom,” she explains. “I helped a lot of people.” She had to teach the women she works with how to download Zoom on their phones, since few have computers. Most of the women in Waling Waling are in London without family, parents, children, and spouses left behind in the Philippines, Morocco, and Benin. Staying in touch with fellow workers and fellow émigrés was a literal lifeline.

Angie Garcia and Khadija Najlaoui

Some members had been living this way for over a decade. Najlaoui is a 54-year-old Moroccan émigré and former garment worker who fled poverty in Morocco for a job in Dubai that she was told would earn her enough to help her struggling family back home. When she got there, like so many who migrate to the Gulf States for promised jobs, she found that she had been lied to. “The contract said you will be looking after kids but when I got there it was another story and salary was less than I was earning in my country,” she remembers. Working nearly around the clock for families who routinely called their domestic workers “donkey” or “monkey” or “dog.” But she had signed a contract. She didn’t have money to return home or pay fees for a cancelled contract. Her employers took her passport. “I had to stay there four years,” she says.

In 2007, Najlaoui’s employers brought her to London on a domestic worker visa. In those days, it permitted her and other workers to switch employers without losing their legal immigrant status. Najlaoui changed jobs several times, working for wealthy families from Pakistan, Qatar, and Dubai who spent part of every year in London. She continued to experience verbal abuse, wage theft, and impossibly long hours.

 In 2009, she was fired, and her possessions thrown into the street after she refused to work 19-hour days or to clean the home of her employer’s relatives for free.The visa allowed Najlaoui to stand up for herself, but the outcome was catastrophic. “I was on the street for three hours with my suitcase,” she recalls. “I had no one in London.” 

Finally, a friend told Najlaoui to seek counsel from the migrant aid group Kalayaan, co-founded by Healy and other activists in 1987 to provide legal assistance for migrant domestic workers. Then “a man from Unite the Union [Britain’s largest trade union federation] saved my life.” Najlaoui says. “He helped me find a better employer.” More crucially, she says, he helped her to earn “leave to remain” status. In a few years, she became a British citizen. She was able to bring family to London. Since 2012 that is no longer possible for migrant domestic workers.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” Najlaoui says. She decided she needed to do something to give back. She is grateful to those who helped her, but incandescent with rage as she describes not only her own treatment but also how employers abuse and exploit other women she now works with. The worst, she says, is when she hears that a domestic worker laughed with employers who called her animal names, only because she was scared or didn’t understand the language.

Najlaoui now works at a job center and as an accredited rep for Unite the Union, which supports Waling Waling logistically and financially. “Unite is my family,” says Najlaoui, grateful that she learned English through the union’s United Migrant Worker Education Program. She volunteers as an assistant teacher in the program and, until the pandemic, she and Margaret met weekly with domestic workers from the Philippines, Morocco, other parts of Africa, and South Asia to help them with legal issues and basic survival. Changing laws takes a long time, says Healy. “My first priority is to help people survive in an unjust world.”

Khadija Najlaoui explains to Waling Waling members how to join or renew membership in UNITE the union, after Viviane Abayomi Noutai reported on Waling Waling’s presentations at the Labour Party convention in Brighton in October.

Since 2012, migrant workers have lived under a return to the anti-immigrant policies of Margaret Thatcher, Healy says. Thatcher ended all domestic worker visas in 1979 so that women who were brought to the UK from the Middle East by wealthy employers no longer had any official recognition in their own names, only a stamp in their passports that said “visa to work with” a named employer. If a worker left that family’s employ for whatever reason, Waling Waling chairwoman Angie Garcia, says, “because of physical or sexual abuse, non-payment of wages, sleep deprivation, food deprivation or taking their passport,” she became an illegal immigrant as far as the British government was concerned.

Waling Waling helps these workers navigate a life in the shadows of England’s labor market. 65-year-old Angie Garcia, who was trained as a dietician, fled poverty and repression in the Philippines, moved to Kuwait on a domestic worker visa, escaped abusive employers there, made her way through the bombs and battles of the Iraq war to a Jordanian refugee camp and finally, to London in the early 1990s. There she joined Waling Waling. “All we wanted was for migrant workers to have the same rights as any other worker in the U.K.,” Garcia says.

At Najlaoui’s flat in Northwest London, over Moroccan mint tea and cakes, Garcia and Najlaoui tell me their stories. Garcia tells me how Waling Waling got its name. It refers to “a rare, beautiful orchid flower that usually grows in the rainforest. Waling Waling is a Tagalog word,” she says. “The Waling Waling is hiding in rocks, or in the cracks of the trees. The flowers are formidable. They’re beautiful. But they’re hiding, like the domestic workers in the United Kingdom.” 

Originally founded by Filipina women, Waling Waling soon welcomed any migrant domestic worker in London who needed help: Indians, Sri Lankans, migrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa, and Bangladeshis flocked to the group. Healy says that at different times they had 200 to 300 people coming to regular meetings. “What we have in common,” Garcia argues forcefully, is that “we are workers and that we are going to fight for our rights as workers and human beings. We believe that we are not servants. We are human beings. We are not maids. We are not family to our employers. We have rights as workers in this country.” 

At the time that Waling Waling was founded, Garcia says, the treatment of domestic workers by wealthy foreign employers in London was so terrible that “4,000 women escaped between 1984 and 1997.” When the Labour party retook power in 1997, years of campaigning and demonstrating paid off. Waling Waling, Kalayaan, the Commission for Filipina Migrant Workers, Unite the Union, and progressive clergy won an agreement with the Labour government that foreign domestic workers would have the same rights under British law as other U.K. workers. Healy was at the meeting where it was decided and remembers that Labour tried to back out of the deal. But activists came armed with recordings of speeches by Labour leaders during the recent campaign asserting that migrant domestic workers deserved the same rights as all other workers. After an embarrassed pause, the workers won. 

“They gave us our demands,” says Healy, “all of them.” That is how Najlaoui and Garcia were able to become British citizens. 

Over lunch in a backyard in Tottenham in November 2021, Waling Waling members meet with Josua Mata (front right), Secretary General of SENTRO: the Philippines “One Big Union.” Mata met with them as part of his campaign to build a global union of overseas Filipina domestic workers.

The vibrant pink and purple orchid called Waling-waling can grow without soil, in the dark, reaching for the light. The symbolism, Garcia says, describes the grueling circumstances faced by U.K. migrant domestic workers since 2012. That is the year that Home Secretary Theresa May declared her “aim . . . to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.” Over the next four years, migrant domestic workers were stripped of all the rights they had won in 1997. They must leave the U.K. after only six months of employment and, if they leave their jobs for whatever reason, they must exit Britain immediately.

By 2017, conditions for domestic migrant workers in London had deteriorated so much so that Garcia, Najlaoui, and other activists re-established Waling Waling, which had gone quiet after the victories of the late 1990s. “It’s worse now than before we won our rights in 1997,” Garcia says. “Much worse.” May’s policies and the Parliamentary acts of 2014 and 2016 have turned every British healthcare worker, educator, landlord, and banker into proxy immigration police. 

Healy agrees that this is the worst period she can remember. Can you imagine turning a doctor into someone who has to deny healthcare or turn a sick patient into the Home Office? She shakes her head, livid.

The consequences can be fatal. Najlaoui and Garcia tell me that one Waling Waling member died at home of COVID-19 because she was afraid to seek medical help. Another put off treatment for cancer and when she finally sought help, ended up with a bill for 9,000 British pounds. 

At the picnic, a Waling Waling member shyly addresses the circle to ask for help, voice trembling. She was lucky enough to recover fully from a recent surgery, but because she has an undocumented status, she is ineligible for free care by the National Health Service and has just been sent a bill for 12,500 pounds. She is shaking. Tears run down her cheeks as she speaks. 

Najlaoui assures her that she will not have to pay £12,500. Healy says that joining UNITE can be helpful to undocumented workers seeking health care. Then they can use their union card for identification when asked. Sometimes that is enough to get them healthcare, says Healy. Undocumented migrants are also helped by an organization called Doctors of the World (DoW)—a spin-off of Doctors Without Borders. Doctors of the World works in 80 countries, countering the criminalization of immigration with medical services and “putting migrant voices at the heart of our organization.” 

Doctors of the World runs an East London clinic for undocumented workers and mobile clinics that travel to immigrant neighborhoods where migrant health liaisons help doctors find frightened people needing treatment. They also help undocumented workers to sign up with General Practitioners in sympathetic neighborhood NHS practices. Effectively they are organizing a non-cooperating network of health practitioners who knowingly break British law rather than violate their Hippocratic oath. DoW has successfully negotiated with NHS clinics so that undocumented workers pay 50-pound monthly fees for services instead of thousands of pounds. It’s one small way the organization works “to empower excluded people to access healthcare.” 

At the end of the picnic, Najlaoui explains to the weeping migrant worker that they will not allow her to be bullied by the British government. When a fellow worker asks the frightened woman how they can help, she requests a hug. The Waling Waling members encircle her and put their arms around her. I am struck by how strange and how essential this act of human contact feels after 20 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Waling, Waling. Flowers blooming in the dark.

Annelise Orleck is Professor of History at Dartmouth College and author of many books and articles on poor people’s movements including, most recently We Are All Fast Food Workers Now: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages (Beacon, 2018).

Photographs by Annelise Orleck, with the kind permission of Waling Waling.