One woman from Nigeria tells Sky News she paid £10,000 to an “agent” for a skilled worker visa on the promise of work in the UK – only to find out the job did not exist.
“I should be in a position of helping, not receiving aid,” says one Nigerian woman.
Fraught with emotion and speaking to us anonymously in the narrow corridor of a food bank, she is now destitute despite being promised a job in Britain.
Blessing, not her real name, told us she arrived in the UK three months ago. She says she paid someone she calls an “agent” in Nigeria £10,000 to arrange a job as a carer in the UK.
But when she got here she found there was no work for her.
Her story is part of a wider problem, revealed in a Sky News investigation this year showing how the skilled worker visa system is being abused with middlemen allegedly being paid huge sums of money to arrange jobs in the UK as carers that do not exist.
Many of those who can’t get work are struggling to survive, turning to food banks and even sleeping rough.
Blessing is now reliant on handouts.
At a food bank in a Nigerian Community Centre in Greater Manchester she is given a shopping bag of basic supplies – the shelves and crates are packed with donations of bread, cereal, tinned tomatoes and familiar African items like palm oil and beans.
Blessing says: “I’ve always provided for myself. I’m a very hard-working, diligent person. So for me to be here depending on people to eat coming to the food bank to get food isn’t ok with me.
“I don’t feel happy about it.
“It makes me feel I’m less of a person. I should be in a position of helping not receiving aid because this is not who I was back in my country.”
‘It makes me feel as though I’m a fool’
Blessing asked us not to contact the British company which sponsored her for fear of repercussions – but showed us her passport and other documents supporting her account of what happened.
I ask her why she didn’t make the application herself. With some irony, she says: “I would have done it myself but there are so many frauds on the internet [in Nigeria] you don’t know what’s real.
“It makes me feel as though I’m a fool,” she says.
Blessing says she knows others who have skilled worker visas only to get here and find there’s no work waiting for them.
She sighs: “There are so many. Dozens. I met a lot here and so many are still coming after I’ve come. There’s a big scam going on.”
Mary Adekugbe, the founder of the Nigerian Community Centre in Rochdale, says those on skilled worker visas now needing support is a big issue that is increasing her workload – something she describes as “shameful”.
About 15 of the 35-40 people who generally come to the weekly food bank have skilled worker visas, she says.
“We are overwhelmed,” she says. “People are desperate. It’s so worrying.”
She paints us a picture of those she has seen: “A grown-up man crying like a baby. Children crying without food because their parents can’t work to support them. No houses. No job. This is alarming.”
‘She sold everything she had’
As we finish chatting by the front door two women scurry past with their bags of food. It’s only afterwards we’re told their story – that they were too ashamed to speak to us: one of the women has hit rock bottom and, with nowhere else to go, lives on the bus.
Community volunteer Jones Adekube says: “Last week we gave her bread and tuna because that’s what she can eat easily without cooking or warming.”
Now homeless, the lady on the bus is yet another person who paid an agent in Nigeria to arrange care work in the UK, we’re told.
Mr Adekube says: “She did some work when she came in. Initially they gave her one shift a week which is 12 hours a week. As time went on there were no shifts.
“According to what she showed us she was offered a full-time job as a carer. And now she’s sleeping on the bus.”
He adds: “She’s in a bad way. She can’t go back home. She has nothing at home. She sold everything she had.”
‘It’s not been easy’
Another couple – we’re calling them Allen and Joyce – have come to the UK with their young son.
We’ve changed their names but they showed us documents which prove they’re in the UK on skilled worker visas.
Joyce says she was also promised work as a carer and Allen was able to accompany her because he is classed as her dependent.
Allen says: “It’s not been easy. I had to sell my car; sell my property, get a loan and took a lot of risk to raise the money.”
Under the terms of the skilled worker visa they can’t work in any other job category and are limited to 20 hours a week under another employer in the care sector.
Often, home care providers require access to a car, and permanently switching sponsors is almost impossible.
Joyce says: “It’s very difficult because most jobs you want to get – they will first of all tell you that you’ve got a sponsor from somewhere else. So maybe you should go back to that place to get your job. That’s what they always say.”
“We are begging the [UK] government if they can look into it, even if it is not skilled work, if they can give us another sponsorship or any other work, we are ready to do. For our survival.”
Over 170,000 skilled worker visas issued in a year
In the 12 months to March 2023, 170,993 skilled worker visas have been awarded. In the health and care sector alone, grants have increased over two and a half times and represent over half of all work visas issued in the same period.
On the job with the lowest entry requirement – care workers and home carers – 40,416 people were awarded visas in the year to March 2023.
In different parts of the country and across different communities we are hearing the same thing.
In Bradford in West Yorkshire, people in the town’s established Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities speak of their concerns about people struggling to eat and put a roof over their heads having come to the UK to work.
‘They are desperate’
Moin Uddin Khan, who owns the large Al-Falah Supermarket in Bradford, says people are always coming in asking for work – predominantly people who have come on skilled worker visas.
Mr Khan says: “They are very desperate. Some people they come begging me because I don’t have any food to eat – and you get this every day.”
The shop manager, Anhar Ali, says some applicants never had any intention of working as carers in the first place – the job they were sponsored for as a condition of coming into the country.
He says: “Some of them are told before they arrive, ‘you won’t have a job, you’re only arriving here’. And they do pay a lot of money. It’s just a way to get to the UK.”
Some of the people who are abusing the route to reach Britain, Mr Ali says, come into the shop without even being able to speak English – a basic requirement to obtain a skilled worker visa.
In the back office, he shows us the latest pile of CVs from people trying to get a job. He has to check each one with the Home Office’s online immigration status tool – otherwise the store could be fined thousands of pounds.
Nearly half the rejected CVs, Mr Ali claims, come from people recently arriving on skilled worker visas as carers but who cannot legally do shop work.
Unrealistic view of life in Britain
And there is a strain, Mr Ali admits, on the community over those willing to do anything for even below minimum wage.
“If they’re going to businesses and offering themselves for less money some businesses may want to go down that route and employ them and sack the local employees,” he says.
Mobeen Hussain, who founded a community hub and cafe in Queensbury, on the outskirts of Bradford, says some people have an unrealistic view of how easy it will be to build a new life in Britain.
He says: “I think a lot of people feel that they’re going to come over here, they’re going to start a new life, it’s going to be a life where they’re going to make lots of money, they’re going to be living a lavish lifestyle. But it’s nothing like that.”
Mr Hussain said the government checks are weak and should be tightened.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Abuse of our immigration system will not be tolerated and we have robust measures in place to ensure compliance.
“We will always take decisive action if employers break the rules, including by revoking sponsor licences when necessary.”