Carers recruited from overseas are suffering appalling levels of exploitation, financial abuse and threats from unscrupulous employees, according to the Unison report – Expendable Labour.

Unison is now calling on the UK government and the Home Office to bring in measures to help safeguard against the shocking practices highlighted in the report. Measures, including a fully-funded minimum rate of pay above the national living wage for all care workers, recruitment only via agencies on the ethical recruiters list run by the NHS, and dedicated funds to enable councils to clamp down on abuse, and ultimately “a national care service to boost wages, put quality above profitmaking and ensure everyone receives the support they need.”

Unison General secretary Christina McAnea noted:

“Workers from abroad have sold everything they own to come here and care for people. But instead of receiving decent pay and conditions, and being treated with dignity and respect, the UK government is letting employers get away with terrible practices that should be consigned to history.”

“To top it off, ministers are demonising migrant workers by blaming them for all the country’s woes. They’re complicit in allowing the abuse to continue and in a raging culture war that’s now targeting low paid migrant workers.”

Social care has a major workforce crisis, with low pay and long hours making recruitment and retention of staff very difficult. People who would once have worked as care workers, now find better pay and conditions in hospitality and retail. As a result employers are increasingly recruiting care workers from overseas including from India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe. According to Skills for Care figures, international employees make up 16% of the social care workforce in England.

A change in immigration rules, after intense lobbying by the industry, led to the inclusion on the Shortage Occupation List and Health and Care worker visa route of senior care worker roles in April 2021, then after further lobbying, in February 2022 care workers were added to the list and visa route. 

The most recent Skills for Care report, covering the year from April 2022 to March 2023, showed a vacancy rate down to 9.9% from 10.6% the previous year (still around 152,000 vacancies on any given day, though), which was heralded as a positive. But the major driver of this reduction in vacancy rate is an increase in international recruitment, in particular from non-EU countries.

What the Unison report highlights is some of the appalling abuse of the migrant staff that are behind the improvement in vacancy rate figures.

The Expendable Labour report includes evidence of threats of dismissal and deportation, excessive hours (or no work at all), and racial abuse for these workers.

Even before they land here, these workers are exploited by recruitment agents, who demand excessive amounts of money. The result is that some migrant job-seekers sell everything they own to pay these ‘relocation’ costs.

Once here unscrupulous employees deduct money from their wages to cover “dubious” fees and are forced to pay extortionate rents for substandard accommodation.

The report documents the case of a care worker who paid a recruitment agent in India £12,000 to ‘introduce’ her to a UK employer. Once in the UK, the care nurse had to pay £700 a month in rent for a shared house without heating and with mouldy walls. The care employee complained about this and the working conditions her fellow migrant colleagues were experiencing. Her employer responded by using false allegations to dismiss her.

Moving jobs is practically impossible as migrant workers are expected to sign contracts containing “draconian clauses, ” including a requirement to pay back recruitment and training costs if they leave their post within a few years. Unison has seen evidence from workers who have effectively been blackmailed into staying because their employers have threatened them with a large debt should they leave.

A working week of 80 hours or more has been reported by some migrant care workers. Others have been made to do 19-hour shifts without a break and forced to be always available for work.

Unison was told by a domiciliary care worker from India that: “Overseas staff miss out on enhanced payments for working weekends and bank holidays. We don’t have regular schedules – we must be available as needed. Every conversation with the managers feels threatening and often ends with the word ‘visa’.” 

Care work is dominated by private companies, many are small and financially unstable, and all are highly dependent on contracts from local councils. A change in contract can be financially disastrous for a company and staff will be made redundant in a particular area or the company will go bust.

If migrant workers are laid off due to lack of a contract or the company goes bust, they face the threat of deportation because there is no safety net to protect them financially or help to find a new employer.

Under current rules staff who lose their jobs have 60 days to find a new employer and sponsor or face deportation. Unison is calling for this to be extended, saying the rule means companies can threaten workers with deportation if they try to leave.

The report’s release coincides with a backlash by the right wing of the Conservative party against immigration due to the release of net migration figures. Immigration minister Robert Jenrick is reported to have plans to cap the numbers of visas for NHS and care work and prevent migrant workers bringing family members with them.

However, Christina McAnea notes: “The Government needs to reform immigration rules, not make them more draconian. Ministers’ attention would be far better focused on fixing care and boosting pay so careers in the sector are more attractive. It’s time to stop scapegoating migrants and instead give councils greater funding to tackle those exploiting them.”

Ms McAnea told the Mirror: “Employers, left with no choice but to recruit foreign workers, are horrified at the Government’s latest attempt to appease its right-wingers. Care staff, many of whom have sold all they own to come here, will be terrified at having to choose between their children when it’s time to renew their visas. This terrible policy could well prove the final straw for the care sector.”

The Government’s top immigration adviser has already warned that the idea could be “very dangerous” for the social care sector. Prof Brian Bell, who chairs the Migration Advisory Committee, said the idea risked worsening the chronic staffing shortage in the sector – and could mean “lots of people won’t get care”

Dear Reader,

If you like our content please support our campaigning journalism to protect health care for all. 

Our goal is to inform people, hold our politicians to account and help to build change through evidence based ideas.

Everyone should have access to comprehensive healthcare, but our NHS needs support. You can help us to continue to counter bad policy, battle neglect of the NHS and correct dangerous mis-infomation.

Supporters of the NHS are crucial in sustaining our health service and with your help we will be able to engage more people in securing its future.

Please donate to help support our campaigning NHS research and  journalism.                              

Comments are closed.