How to recruit overseas care workers ethically

How to recruit overseas care workers ethically

Anti-slavery charity Unseen recently shone a light on how overseas care workers are increasingly being unethically hired and then badly mistreated after arriving in the UK.

Its October 2023 report, Who Cares – Modern Slavery in the Care Sector, revealed a 606% increase in care work-related modern slavery cases reported to its UK Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline in 2022. That equates to 712 potential victims of modern slavery, many of these overseas workers, up from 63 12 months before.

Unseen highlighted the ‘unfair and unlawful’ recruitment practices of care providers and third-party recruitment agencies, including overseas workers having to shell out thousands of pounds to pay for Health & Care Worker Visas and travel costs. Often, workers are also charged large fees, directly by their employers, for certificates of sponsorship.

“The average debt of an overseas care worker is £11,800 but we’ve heard of debts of more than £60,000. It is debt bondage,” says Andrew Wallis OBE, Unseen’s chief executive. “One worker, who was recruited from Zimbabwe, did not receive a contract and her employer charged her £10,000 for a certificate of sponsorship. This should only have cost a few hundred pounds and flies in the face of the employer pays principle – where no workers should pay for a job.”

Long hours and abuse

On arrival in the UK some workers have been forced to work more than previously agreed hours, had their passports and phones seized by employers, face frequent searches of their possessions and suffered verbal abuse.

According to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) – the independent regulator of health and adult social care in England – between April and June 2023 about 70,000 people from overseas arrived to work in UK care. This compared with 20,000 in 2021-22.

"The average debt of an overseas care worker is £11,800 but we've heard of debts of more than £60,000"

The surge is down to several factors including Brexit driving Eastern European care workers out of the UK and the need therefore to fill these gaps. This has been exacerbated by a lack of interest in care worker jobs from people living in Britain.

That is a major issue given the expected increase in demand for care given an ageing population.

“Recruiting locally has been fruitless for a number of years now,” says Matthew Kalupka, Director of Surrey-based Home Counties Carers. “Being a care worker doesn’t seem to be an attractive career prospect, so the take-up by local people for local roles is almost zero. Frustratingly those that show initial signs of interest often go quiet and disappear, so ghosting is becoming the norm for many providers.”

Extending global recruitment

The vacancy crisis led, in February 2022, to care home and homecare managers and workers being added to the government’s Shortage Occupation List and the Health and Care worker visa route. This meant that workers who met the salary threshold and had a licensed sponsor could come to the UK.

Although this has led to the number of vacant posts in England decreasing by 7% to 152,000 it may have also driven up unethical recruitment.

“We now, as a result of the skilled worker visa scheme, have extended global recruitment supply chains,” says Wallis. “Care providers are hiring recruiters to find migrant workers who are subsequently sub-contracting the work elsewhere. There is no visibility and increased vulnerabilities and opportunities for exploitation with this sub sub-contracting model.”

Kalupka says the visa change was too tempting an opportunity for unethical recruiters. “Companies and agencies were going over to Africa and telling workers that they had UK jobs for them even though they didn’t exist. They just wanted a pool of workers to land local council contracts. Many were not even registered with the CQC,” he says.  

Code of Practice

The Government is trying to tackle the problem with, from early March, providers in England being required to be regulated by the CQC if they want to sponsor visas.

It has also revised its Code of Practice for recruiting internationally. This states that social care employers, when using a recruitment organisation, agency or collaboration, should only contract organisations that comply with the code of practice. These can be found on its Ethical Recruiters list.

"Being a care worker doesn’t seem to be an attractive career prospect, so the take-up by local people for local roles is almost zero"

The Code explains that social care personnel will not be charged fees for recruitment services and that employers will not contract recruitment organisations or agencies that do so.

It also states that social care personnel will have the same legal rights and responsibilities as domestically trained staff and be provided with all the relevant information about the post they have applied for. This included terms and conditions and pay. Induction programmes should help them settle into the UK including registering with a GP.

Providers should also follow the World Health Organisation’s Code of Practice outlining the countries it is unethical to actively target in a recruitment process to prevent a ‘brain drain’ of skilled talent.

The Scottish example

Joined up relationships between relevant organisations are also crucial.

Dr Donald Macaskill, Chief Executive of Scottish Care – the representative body for independent social care services in Scotland – says the issue of unethical international recruitment is far less acute North of the Border. “We are dealing with smaller overseas worker numbers, but the evidence we have is that it is not a significant issue. We have worked closely with the Scotland Against Modern Slavery organisation, the Scottish Government and NHS Education Scotland on specific models of best practice for ethical and fair recruitment,” he says.

“If a provider is looking to recruit overseas, they will have access to ‘how to’ material from Government and other organisations. We can also point them in the direction of organisations which support international recruitment and who, via recommendations from our members, act in an ethical manner.”

Unseen is trying to create a unified approach bringing together all stakeholders including Government, statutory agencies and the care sector. Its recommendations include introducing additional checks at visa issuing centres to ensure applicants have not paid recruitment fees to a third party.

In the meantime, he says: “We’d advise providers using recruiters to ask overseas workers if they have had to pay for their visas as well as any other payments,” says Wallis. “Providers should thoroughly question recruiters about their recruitment processes. They should work with NGOs who have knowledge in this area.”

Give a damn

Kalupka, who currently has three overseas workers, says their recruitment resulted from personal referrals. He gives providers a simple piece of advice to hire ethically – ‘give a damn’ about people.

“We provide our overseas workers with accommodation, pay for driving lessons, provide a rental car at a nominal price, and have a buddy-up scheme with our existing workforce,” he explains. “They are friendly, reliable, trustworthy and competent, they work to very high standards and a very strong work ethic. Without them I do not see a positive future for the business or the sector and would have to consider my future options.”

Other industry experts hail the transfer of ideas and diversity, loyalty and high retention rates of overseas workers.

Published on
March 26, 2024