Growing concern over the
exploitation of overseas
care workers

Tackling widespread exploitation of migrant care workers is now the ‘number one priority’ for the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), a government body that investigates labour exploitation in England and Wales.

Reports of worker exploitation in the care sector have soared over the last two years, since care workers were made eligible for visa sponsorship under the Health and Care Worker route in February 2022. The rule change prompted a significant increase in overseas recruitment within the care sector, and carers now account for two in five of all skilled work visas.

According to GLAA Senior Investigating Officer Martin Plimmer, there are now more than 30 ongoing investigations into care agencies operating illegally, and his organisation still does not know the full extent of the problem.

Anti-slavery charity Unseen said that there was a 606% increase in care work-related modern slavery cases reported to the Unseen helpline last year. A new report by the charity revealed various methods of abuse used by some employers in the care sector to keep individuals in modern slavery situations. The most common method was financial control, including withholding wages, non-compliance with National Minimum Wage, large deductions from salaries, debt bondage and excessive fees for breaking contract. Some employers also withheld victims’ passports and threatened to revoke certificates of sponsorship or have them deported.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We strongly condemn offering Health and Care Worker visa holders employment under false pretences. The government does not tolerate illegal activity in the labour market and any accusations of illegal employment practices will be thoroughly looked into. Those found operating unlawfully may face prosecution and/or removal from the sponsorship register.”

Meanwhile, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) is currently undertaking an inspection of the relationship between the immigration system and the social care sector in the UK. Part of the investigation will focus on the effectiveness of the Home Office’s compliance requirements on sponsors, including how these safeguard employees from exploitation.

Why are overseas care workers at risk of exploitation?

Due to persistent underfunding that has led to deep-rooted issues such as low pay and poor working conditions, the adult social care sector is particularly susceptible to labour exploitation and modern slavery.

For those care workers that have been recruited from overseas, the risk is even higher. Care workers coming to the UK on a Health and Care Worker visa are tied to their sponsoring employer for the duration of their visa and cannot change employers unless they apply for a new visa. Some employers may also be contractually entitled to claw back the significant upfront costs of sponsorship if the worker leaves (this is legal but unions want tighter regulation). Some workers may also be in debt to overseas recruiters.

Illegal recruitment agencies are targeting overseas care workers desperate to come to the UK, charging them excessive fees and not paying them what they are supposed to. Some victims are arriving in the UK to find out there is no job for them and finding themselves destitute and relying on food banks to survive.

Such factors can reduce workers’ bargaining power and leave them more vulnerable to poor conditions than British workers or those without tied visas.

Unseen warned that overseas workers do not always understand their rights in the UK, which leaves them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The charity’s Chief Executive has called on the Home Office to better apply existing laws, particularly the principle of no recruitment fees imposed on the employee, and to ensure proper scrutiny of the employee supply chain by UK care companies and recruitment agencies.

Maintaining compliance as a sponsor of overseas care workers

With reports of exploitation of overseas care workers on the rise, going forward the Home Office is likely to place an increased emphasis on compliance for sponsors in the care sector.

The Home Office may conduct compliance checks on existing sponsors at any time, and employers should be prepared. Those businesses that are new to sponsorship or applying for a licence for the first time should expect the Home Office to conduct thorough checks on your business to ensure you are offering legitimate employment to overseas care workers.

For the majority of ethical, law-abiding employers within the care sector there should be no cause for concern as long as your business has sufficient systems and processes in place to maintain compliance with the immigration rules. However, even for the most reputable employer it is possible to get caught out on the basis of minor breaches. Sponsors should therefore regularly review the guidance for sponsors or consult an immigration advisor for further support.

To help employers in the care sector understand their duties and responsibilities as a licenced sponsor, Smith Stone Walters will be revisiting the key areas of sponsor compliance in a series of articles over the coming weeks.

Should you have any questions in the meantime, our team would be happy to help. To speak to a qualified immigration advisor, please contact us today.

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