Plans from all three parties to tighten immigration controls could restrict recruitment to adult social care and damage the quality of services, according to sector heads.
Immigration shot to the top of the election agenda yesterday when Gordon Brown described a supporter who questioned him about eastern European immigration as bigoted.
All three parties have plans to impose greater controls should they come to power next week.
The Conservative manifesto backs capping numbers of immigrants from outside Europe while the Liberal Democrats favour a system in which non-European migrants are only allowed to work in areas where their skills are needed.
Labour plans to tighten the points system for migrants from outside Europe including by removing care workers from the list of shortage occupations by 2014.
This would end employers’ current right to recruit suitably qualified senior care workers from outside Europe without advertising vacancies locally first. There are no restrictions on migrants from the European Union and other European countries such as Norway and Switzerland.
Mandy Thorn, vice-chair of the National Care Association, said: “I think in the medium term it’s short-sighted because as a sector we have relied on immigrants to have labour to meet the workforce needs.”
The proportion of migrant workers in the older people’s care workforce doubled from 1998-2008, mainly because of employers’ inability to attract UK-born staff at current pay rates, research last year by the Centre for Migration Policy and Society (Compas) at Oxford University found.
Thorn added that the recession had eased the problem of recruiting British-born staff, but said as the economy recovered this problem would return.
She said restrictions on overseas students’ working hours introduced at the beginning of April were set to reduce the supply of people willing to work unsociable hours in the care sector.
Colin Angel, head of policy at the United Kingdom Homecare Association, also raised concerns about the impact of a tighter immigration system.
He said: “As the importance of home care continues to increase, [councils and primary care trusts] need to think really carefully about what they pay their providers who will be competing with other sectors recruiting from the same pool of workers.”