Britain battles a worsening social care staffing crisis, with an estimated 105,000 vacancies nationally and thousands of patients facing long delays for care.
Care workers recruited from overseas to look after elderly and disabled people in Britain are being charged thousands of pounds in illegal fees and forced to work in exploitative conditions to pay off their debts. By law, agents cannot charge a fee for finding or trying to find a candidate work.
But the fees are often disguised as a “processing”, “service” or “admin” charge, with many workers unaware they are illegal. Often, the breakdown of fees or full amount is not fully disclosed until the worker has reached the UK, by which time they have already paid for flights and relocation.
Workers from India, the Philippines, Ghana and Zimbabwe are among those charged for their recruitment, with fees ranging from £3,000 to £18,000.
Some have become trapped in debt bondage – a form of modern slavery – as a result of the fees. Suspected victims described how agents had deducted money from their salaries and withheld their passport or residence permit until they repaid the sum owed.
Others claim to have been subject to abuse and threats or paid less than the minimum wage. They cannot speak up because the sponsorship system for care workers means their visa is tied to their employer.
Many of the care workers used a government visa scheme introduced in February which added care workers to the shortage occupation list to attract international candidates. But evidence collected by the Observer – including interviews with suspected victims, charities and labour experts; conversations with agents; and analysis of payslips, contracts and online chat groups – reveals the new visa route is being widely abused by agencies and traffickers, leaving workers open to exploitation. Modern slavery in the care sector is a growing problem, with several raids by the government’s labour abuse agency recently, and data from charities and the Care Quality Commission suggesting a rise in cases.
Todd Maforimbo, who studied the supply of labour in the UK health sector and now campaigns on labour abuse, explains, “People are coming to look for a better life but they’re ending up in worse situations.”
An internal report from the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority said more monitoring was needed to “prevent debt bondage and highlight potential traffickers”.