‘Very bad’ employers exploiting overseas social care staff, warns government migration adviser

Migration Advisory Committee chair also criticises ministers' failure to respond to government-commissioned report urging higher pay for social care workers published 15 months ago

Care worker or nurse looking stressed
Photo: Nina Lawrenson/peopleimages.com/Adobe Stock

A “tail of very bad employers in the social care sector” are exploiting overseas staff brought to the UK to fill gaps caused by endemic low pay, a government adviser has warned.

Migration Advisory Committee chair Brian Bell has also castigated ministers for their failure to respond to an April 2022 MAC report they themselves commissioned, which called for increases to social care pay, rather than a reliance on immigration, to tackle the sector’s workforce problems.

Bell, professor of economics at King’s College London, made the comments in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s World at One yesterday (31 July).

They come on the back of a large increase in the number of migrant social care staff on the back of the government’s decision – based on MAC advice – to place care work on the so-called shortage occupation list from February 2022, enabling employers to recruit people from abroad as skilled workers, on health and care worker visas.

Call to improve social care pay

However, in its April 2022 report on adult social care and immigration, the MAC told ministers it would be “highly damaging for the sector in the long term if the necessarily limited and short-term relief brought by immigration policy were used as an ‘excuse’ not to
address the more fundamental problems the sector faces”.

These included “low pay rates with little pay progression, and poor terms and conditions compared to competing occupations”, prompting the MAC to call for the government to introduce “a fully funded minimum rate of pay for care workers in England that is above the national living wage, where care is being provided through public funds”, implemented immediately.

Such a policy is in place in Scotland and Wales, where care staff in state-funded roles receive a minimum rate of £10.90 an hour, above the current national living wage of £10.42.

However, not only have ministers not done this for staff in England but, 15 months on, they have not responded to the MAC’s paper, compared to a typical response time of two to three months to committee reports commissioned by the government, according to Bell.

Brian Bell, chair, Migration Advisory Committee

Brian Bell, chair, Migration Advisory Committee (credit: HM Government)

In his BBC interview, he said that while immigration had resulted in social care services being provided that would not have been otherwise, overseas staff were enabling the government to get away with not funding social care properly, while some were also facing exploitation.

“There are lots of really great employers out there,” he said. [But] there are two main problems. One is that many are exploited in their home country in terms of middlemen asking for very large fees to so-called help them get a place in Britain and that can be £10,000.

‘Very bad’ employers exploiting staff

“And then there are the bad employers in Britain. It’s not just immigration, there’s a tail of bad very bad employers in the social care sector who exploit workers.”

Bell said this was “always a problem in low-wage labour markets” and that similar concerns had also been raised several times by Margaret Beels, the director of labour market enforcement, a government appointee whose role is to examine exploitation of staff by employers.

In her 2022-23 strategy, published in March this year, Beels said: “Workers on student visas have been found to be working substantially in excess of their permitted hours and being exploited with very low pay, poor accommodation and without the required qualifications.”

Meanwhile, last month UNISON voiced concerns about overseas staff being placed in sub-standard accommodation or not being paid on the grounds of employers recouping relocations costs they had incurred.

‘No one should feel exploited’ – DHSC

In response to Bell’s comments, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “International recruitment has a valuable role to play in helping grow the adult social care workforce, while at home we are investing £250m to support staff to develop new skills, get better training and develop their careers.”

The £250m, spread over the next two years, will fund hundreds of thousands of training places to help staff progress along a career pathway, but it represents half of what the DHSC had originally pledged, from 2022-25, to develop the workforce, with pledges on resourcing wellbeing services ditched.

The DHSC spokesperson added: “No staff should feel exploited or harassed. Any concerns regarding potentially unethical and illegal employment practices should be reported to the Gangmaster and Labour Abuse Authority [which examines abuse of vulnerable workers] who will investigate fully. Staff should contact the Care Quality Commission if they witness or are a victim of malpractice.”

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One Response to ‘Very bad’ employers exploiting overseas social care staff, warns government migration adviser

  1. Nobody cares until everybody does August 2, 2023 at 8:24 am #

    It seems the Windrush template is used by many different industries/professions under different names – including social work sadly.