Rising reports of exploitation against overseas care workers

Care workers have been subjected to racial abuse, had their wages and passports withheld and have been threatened with deportation by their employer, a new report has revealed.

The report by anti-slavery charity Unseen has laid bare the abuse experienced by internationally educated care staff in the UK, as it highlighted that the number of workers contacting its modern slavery and exploitation helpline had skyrocketed in the last year.

“This report shows that the current approach of recruiting overseas to address a chronic shortage of care staff in the UK is a disaster for many workers”

Andrew Wallis

There was a 606% increase in care work-related modern slavery cases reported to the Unseen helpline last year, said the report.

It found that, during 2022, 106 cases of modern slavery in the care sector were indicated to the helpline – up from just 15 the previous year.

Those 106 cases involved 712 potential victims – up from just 15 the previous year.

Unseen has estimated that these figures will continue to grow and could reach record highs by the end of 2023.

The charity warned that the sector was susceptible to worker exploitation and modern slavery due to long-term issues of low pay and poor working conditions because of persistent underfunding in social care.

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In addition, the rise in the number of internationally educated staff who have been recruited into the sector in recent years could also be a contributing factor.

The report warned that overseas workers do not always understand their rights in the UK, which leaves them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

It comes as a recent report from Skills for Care revealed that the independent social care sector had recruited 70,000 internationally educated workers into direct care-providing roles in the last year – up 50,000 from the year before.

Unseen noted that many of these workers would have paid huge fees to employers or recruitment agencies to come to the UK on special visas designed to fill vacancies in the sector.

Meanwhile, concerns around the treatment of internationally educated staff were also raised in a recent report by the health and social care regulator.

The Care Quality Commission warned in its State of Care report that a growing trend of unethical international recruitment practices had seen internationally educated workers being controlled and coerced by employers.

Now, the Unseen report has laid bare the methods being used by some social care employers to keep individuals in modern slavery situations in the care sector.

Financial control was shown to be the most common method for nearly three quarters of potential victims (72.5%), including withholding wages, non-compliance with National Minimum Wage, large deductions from salaries, debt bondage and excessive fees for breaking contract.

Confinement or restricted movement was indicated by nearly half of potential victims (43%). For example, victims had been transported to and from work by their employer, forced to find accommodation within a certain radius of the work premises and had been prevented from going to places of worship or attending medical appointments.

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Threats were also found to be a common method of control, particularly around threatening to revoke certificates of sponsorship or to have victims deported.

In addition, emotional abuse was indicated by almost a quarter of potential victims (23%), including being shouted at, insulted or subject to racial abuse.

Other control methods highlighted in the report included monitoring the victim continuously remotely and in person, and destroying or withholding important documents like passports, visa documentation and contracts.

“The government does not tolerate illegal activity in the labour market”

Government spokesperson

Unseen gave a real case study of Diwata – whose name was changed to protect her identity – who came to the UK from the Philippines on a skilled worker visa to work in a residential care home.

Diwata and her colleagues lived in the care home and were forced to share small rooms.

In addition, their employer was controlling them by confiscating their phones, frequently searching their possessions, verbally abusing and shouting at Diwata and her colleagues, and threatening to cancel their visas.

Eventually the Unseen helpline referred the situation to the police, which resulted in an investigation by the Modern Slavery Organised Immigration Crime unit.

Chief executive of Unseen, Andrew Wallis, said: “This report shows that the current approach of recruiting overseas to address a chronic shortage of care staff in the UK is a disaster for many workers.

“As the employee supply chain has got longer and more complicated, labour abuse and exploitation has increased.

“The Home Office needs 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.

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“It is individual workers who are paying the price of this neglect.”

A government 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.”

The Care Quality Commission was contacted for comment.

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