By Shereen Hussein
Published in December last year, the government’s white paper on the UK’s future skills-based immigration system represents a radical departure from the existing system of labour migration.
The plans, which follow the UK’s decision to leave the EU, will put an end to free movement of European nationals and will open greater employment opportunities to all nationalities.
However, the government white paper has serious consequences for the fast-growing sector of social care including employers, workers, service users, and family carers.
Shift in workforce makeup
Migrant workers currently make up 18% of the social care workforce, of which 8% are non-British European Economic Area (EEA) nationals and 10% are from other countries. The share of migrants in the workforce varies substantially between regions, with London and the South East having substantially higher levels (39% and 23% respectively) of migrant workers compared with regions such as the North East of England which has just 4%.
Non-British workers are less likely to hold managerial positions, and are over-represented in regulated professions, such as nursing and social work, and direct care work.
While migrant workers have traditionally contributed to social care, their composition has shifted since 2004.
The free movement of EU nationals from Central and Eastern Europe, and restrictions on the direct recruitment of non-EEA workers following the introduction of the points-based visa system in 2008, have resulted in an increased reliance on EEA workers, particularly from Romania and Poland. They now represent the two largest nationality groups in social care followed by the Philippines, Nigeria, India, and Zimbabwe.
Under the government’s proposal, free movement of EU (EEA) nationals will end from January 1, 2021 and a single route will be introduced for ‘skilled workers’ from all countries. It is envisaged that this will be open to all occupations with a skill level of RQF3 and above subject to a salary threshold which is currently set at £30,000 per year; but this is under consideration.
The cap on the number of visas issued will be lifted and the sponsorship system will be replaced by a ‘lighter-touch’ streamlined approach.
End of low-skill labour
One of the central tenets of the new immigration policy is the end of ‘low-skill labour migration’ and, therefore, no specific route has been proposed for ‘lower skilled workers’ seeking employment in the UK.
Instead, a time-limited route for temporary short-term workers is planned that will allow people to come for a maximum of 12 months with limited rights: no access to public funds, no dependants in the UK, and no return within 12 months.
But the new immigration policy would allow migrant workers to look for work and change employers during their stay.
Sector challenged by Brexit
Social care is mentioned throughout the white paper as one of the sectors that would face challenges and “find it difficult immediately to adapt”. However, the government has stated that it is “committed to working (…) to help facilitate the change needed to reduce demand for low skilled migrant labour”.
Challenges in maintaining an adequate social care workforce may arise from the following:
- Salary threshold: although senior care workers would be permitted under the new skilled route, the proposed threshold of £30,000 per year means that very few social care jobs would actually qualify considering current pay levels (Skills for Care 2018).
- Sponsorship: although this is proposed to be ‘lighter-touch’ than the current work visa system, it would still represent an additional – financial and administrative – burden for employers who can currently recruit EU migrants without additional cost.
- Temporary visas for ‘low-skilled’ workers: reliance on an ever-changing pool of short-term migrant care workers would potentially have a range of negative consequences for quality of care and the well-being of people who use services, family carers, and the workforce.
- The ad-hoc nature of the short-term immigration route: this route would rely on migrants actively seeking to come to the UK for short-term employment. Social care with its low pay and emotional demands might not be an attractive option for many temporary migrants, which would exacerbate existing labour shortages.
Unable to meet demand
Years of austerity, marketisation, and growing demand from an ageing population have all contributed to the recruitment and retention difficulties in the sector. However, even with free movement, the sector was not able to meet demand.
As the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) 2018 report points out, social care “needs a policy wider than just migration policy to fix its many problems”. There is a need for a sectoral recruitment and retention strategy to meet the escalating demand for social care. Such a strategy needs to be specific and context-tailored to the emotional work and level of commitment required to provide high quality and person-centred care to the most vulnerable people in our society.
It could also acknowledge the sector’s need for migrants and design a specific route to ensure adequate supply of care workers with required skills as part of a sustainable system. There are examples across the world that the UK could learn from.
The government will need to face and respond to these more urgently. The delays in the publication of the green paper on social care are further hindering the ability of the sector to prepare for these significant challenges.
A longer version of this commentary is available here.
Shereen Hussein is professor of care and health policy evaluation and associate director of Kent’s Personal Social Services Research Unit and is is currently researching the implications of Brexit on migrant workers’ contribution to the social care sector. She tweets at @DrShereeHussein