“We are bringing perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice and are working with the police and operational partners to drive up prosecutions.”-Home Office
Modern slavery is surging in social care since ministers relaxed immigration rules to fill thousands of vacancies, with a growing wave of exploitation leading to workers being ripped off or living in squalor.
Unpublished figures show at least 800 people working in care homes or people’s residences were charted as potential victims last year, more than 10 times the number recorded before the government’s visa scheme.
Some workers have reported sleeping in cold, cramped rooms or only receiving a fraction of their pay. Others have said they paid exorbitant fees to agents for visa costs worth only a fraction of the price.
The mounting scale of abuse across the UK has been described by campaigners and care groups as “shocking”, “outrageous” and “utterly shameful” – with calls for councils and the NHS to carry out tighter checks on private care firms employing migrant workers.
It comes as the government-appointed independent anti-slavery commissioner, Eleanor Lyons, said she is “deeply concerned about the risk of exploitation and modern slavery for workers in the adult social care sector, particularly those from overseas who have come to the UK on short-term visas”.
Unseen, a Bristol-based anti-slavery charity, said it recorded at least 800 potential victims of modern slavery last year, based on calls to its helpline – an increase of more than 1,100% on the 63 in 2021. The rise comes after the Home Office added care workers to the shortage occupation list in 2022.
“We have seen year-on-year rises in the number of cases indicating modern slavery – the most serious end of exploitation,” said Justine Carter, director of Unseen. “Social care is fundamental to communities. You want to know, if you need care and support, that the people giving that care are not being exploited or, even worse, are victims of modern slavery.”
Carter said people are regularly paying over £11,000 to agents and care companies to come to the UK when the actual cost of visas and flights are unlikely to be much more than £1,500. Many are finding no work or severely reduced hours and cramped and substandard accommodation. She urged commissioners in councils and the NHS to demand evidence from care operators bringing people from abroad about their pay, hours, accommodation and fees.
Jane Townson, chief executive of the Homecare Association, which represents domiciliary care providers, also said there had recently been a rise in the number of new companies registering with the CQC and that some unscrupulous providers were “scamming [foreign workers] for thousands of pounds and putting them in cockroach-infested rooms”.
“We have a moral obligation to ensure that all care workers, whether from the UK or overseas, are safe and well-treated,” she said. “As a country, we desperately need their skills and experience. Some agents and employers are providing exemplary support for sponsored workers. Others are failing to do so. Some of the stories we hear are utterly shameful and outrageous. We strongly condemn exploitation of workers and abuse of the skilled visa route.”
The CQC warned MPs last month that modern slavery was now “a feature” of the UK’s social care market.
James Bullion, its chief inspector of adult social care and integrated care, told the Commons health and social care select committee that cases of modern slavery are on track to have increased tenfold in the last three years. He said the CQC made four referrals about modern slavery in 2021-22, 37 referrals last year, and is on course to make 50 this year.
In 2021, 15 separate cases of potential modern slavery in the care system – delivering care in people’s homes and in residential care homes – were raised with Unseen, most with multiple victims. This rose to 106 in 2022 and is expected to be more than 130 when figures for 2023 are finalised.
The sharp rise follows the government decision in February 2022 to make foreign social care workers eligible for temporary visas that were previously reserved for higher-paid workers. In the following 18 months, 180,000 health and care visas were granted – a rate almost three times higher than before.
It has helped fill more than 165,000 vacancies, but has also created a wave of exploitation which is increasingly concerning trade unions, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) regulator and care operators.
Each of the cases Unseen counted last year crossed the threshold of one or more signs of modern slavery, including financial or physical control, debt bondage, being tied to accommodation and having passports impounded.
Many are likely to fall below the high legal thresholds for criminal prosecution for human trafficking or slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour but are nevertheless “high harm because of the amount of abuse” involved, Carter said. Victims may not want to complain as they remain in debt and fear that family members back home may be vulnerable.
Melanie Weatherby, co-chair of the Care Association Alliance, who runs homecare services in Lincolnshire, said she had recently met a group of 30 Nigerian care workers brought to the UK on the sponsored visa scheme who had ended up with no work.
“Some were scammed and for others there was no work when they got here,” she said, adding that too many sponsorship licences were issued to small companies that didn’t have enough work to offer.
Lyons, a former Downing Street adviser who took up the role of anti-slavery commissioner in December, said: “Every individual who works to provide such a valuable service in this country deserves to be paid a reasonable living wage and must be kept well informed about their employment rights. We must work together to ensure that nobody is allowed to slip through gaps in the system.”
Gavin Edwards, Unison’s head of social care, said: “Every week the union hears yet more horror stories involving migrant care workers. The increasingly hostile government rhetoric concerning overseas staff is only encouraging dodgy employers to ratchet up their exploitative behaviour.”
The number of referrals to the government’s National Referral Mechanism for people in danger or at risk of exploitation hit a record high last year for the period January to September.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Modern slavery is a barbaric crime and we are committed to ensuring that the necessary support is available to victims of modern slavery to help them rebuild their lives. We are bringing perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice and are working with the police and operational partners to drive up prosecutions.”-Guardian