Zimbabweans on COS suffering in the UK
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Zimbabweans on COS suffering in the UK

Zimbabwean care workers are being tricked into coming to the UK by unscrupulous middlemen who withhold up to half their wages and force them to live in squalor.

The scam, which plays on the acute shortages of nursing and care staff across Britain’s hospitals and care homes, has echoes of the debt bondage schemes recently revealed to be impacting Zimbabwean carers.

However, agencies – often run by Zimbabweans in the UK and unregulated – are exploiting them, a Telegraph investigation has found.

The British Telegraph reported that many Zimbabweans are being financially abused by those offering them Certificates of Sponsorship known as COS.

“When you are working for an agency [in the UK], they pay you 50 percent of your total salary,” said Jim Moyo, who moved to the UK from Harare into work in a care home in Margate.

“You are getting paid £14 per hour, but then these guys will pay you £7.”

He added that, once tax was deducted, he was left with just £4 per hour for “rent, food and all sorts of expenses”.

“[The agency] tells you: ‘I paid for your accommodation, flights, visa, [I’m] your sponsor’. It’s like a hideous loan,” said Mr Moyo.

Official figures show that last year alone Zimbabwe lost nearly 11 800 nurses and carers mainly to United Kingdom.

While Zimbabwe’s nurses have found work in Britain for years, hiring care workers is a new phenomenon, and experts told the Telegraph that a lucrative ecosystem of manipulation has been built around it.

“Exploitation does not start on arrival [in the UK],” said Hillary Musarurwa, a Zimbabwe-born social scientist in England. “It starts during the application process [in Zimbabwe].”

One route to the UK is by completing a Red Cross care worker certification programme which is not even a requirement in the UK.

“It’s like cow barns, Red Cross academies are filled to seams with UK-hopeful care-work trainees. It’s ex-teachers and geologists desperate to retrain for UK care work,” said a trainee nurse at a Mutare hospital, who plans to emigrate to the UK when he graduates.

The Certificate of Sponsorship (COS) is highly coveted, which has led to it being exploited by middlemen.

Mr Zuze said his wife had been scammed by “agents” who charged US$3 800 to put her on the training waiting list despite the official Red Cross certification costing just US$300.

These agents are not in any way employed, endorsed or contracted by Red Cross Zimbabwe and there is no evidence Red Cross Zimbabwe is aware of them.

Closed WhatsApp groups, seen by the Telegraph, show that so-called agents then ask care workers to pay up to £15000 if they want to be linked with UK-based care agencies.

“This has created another huge web of corruption; care agencies in the UK, run by Zimbabwe nationals, [are] gifting the COS to their relatives and friends first and anyone else [faces] hefty fees that reach £14 000,” said Mr Zuze.

On arriving in the UK the sponsor has no jobs to offer and still charge you for rent despite not giving you work.

Instagram is full of lies, said Mandipa Moyo who was conned of £18 000 by a COS fraudster.

“Sometimes, we just don’t jive with a place, and that’s alright. This is me giving you permission to dislike somewhere, even if you were so excited to go work there. Give everywhere a chance, obviously, but don’t feel like you have to swoon over a city you only find OK. I never felt at home in London, while other people love the city! I loved Harare while some of my friends just were not feeling the vibe,” said Moyo.

“Sometimes, no matter how beautiful somewhere is, our real life there will be difficult. I have been sleeping on the sofa or sometimes on the floor. Rent in UK is too high. We share one room and we are six. The room belongs to our employer and he is charging us £600 a month. There is only one bed and the supervisor is the one allowed to sleep on the bed.

“I found my job as a carer challenging and exhausting. I have no friends yet and feeling very alone. I had studied English in Zimbabwe and found it hard to understand the British style of speaking. I am near the end of a romantic relationship and doubts about my future career. I felt a heavy sadness every day that the sunshine and beauty of the beaches could not lift. And that’s not OK. It is OK for me to realize I am sad and why, and to let myself feel that way. We have our kinsman who are specialised witches in the UK.”

Another Zimbabwe-born nurse working for the NHS in North London added that she knew someone in the UK “charging £17 000”.

This clearly contradicts British law, according to Taffi Nyawanza, head of immigration at Mezzle Law in Birmingham who is well-known in Zimbabwe’s UK diaspora community.

“The UK law is clear. A recruitment agency cannot charge a fee for ‘placing’ an employee. The person who ‘assigns’ or prepares and allocates the [COS] must not be related to the prospective employee. [If] this is the case, the relationship must be fully disclosed to the Home Office,” he said.

However, regulation of these agencies is weak, and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) suggested that – although it is unacceptable that some overseas-based agencies are charging fees to place candidates with jobs in Britain – their hands are tied because the actors are not under UK jurisdiction.

“We understand repayment clauses may be used by some organisations to recoup upfront costs if internationally recruited staff do not meet the terms of their contract,” a spokesperson said.

The vast majority of care workers are employed by private sector providers who ultimately set their pay, terms and conditions independent of central government.

“However, we would be concerned if repayment costs were disproportionate or punitive.”

Experts said the schemes have taken advantage of chronic staffing issues across the UK’s social and health care systems – the NHS alone is currently trying to fill 40,000 nursing positions – which has triggered a surge in international recruitment.

The DHSC signed a deal with Nepal for nurses to work at Hampshire Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, under a pilot scheme that could pave the way for thousands more Nepalese nurses to come to Britain.

But the ethics of the move are “debatable at best”, according to Sir Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, as Nepal is on an international recruitment red list of the World Health Organization (WHO) to prevent developed countries from actively recruiting from regions with a lack of health workers or an undeveloped health system.

“That the UK should have [to] do special deals with other countries to support its own NHS workforce is in itself a marker of how workforce planning for the NHS has failed,” Sir Andrew told the Telegraph.

“That we are taking from a country that has substantially lower numbers of healthcare workers than many countries have is something we should have serious reservations about.”

NHS England has also been accused of “emptying” Zimbabwe of health workers – although the country is not on the red list for carers but for nurses experts have warned of a “critical shortage” of staff.-Dr Masimba Mavaza

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