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care workers stranded by UK’s migration policy

Olly sold her tourism business in Botswana after Covid-19 struck and paid almost £8,000 for visas and flights to take a job as a carer in the UK.

The work was stressful enough, involving long miles between clients around rural Somerset in an unfamiliar manual car. But in August, just weeks after her family joined her, her employer folded.

She swiftly found another job in a care home willing to sponsor her visa, but is only allowed to work part-time while the Home Office processes the paperwork — and risks deportation from next week if the delay continues.

“It is very difficult financially, because the savings I had got finished,” Olly said. “Right now we don’t know . . . if the Home Office will tell us to pack our bags and go.”

Olly is one of hundreds of migrant care workers who have sought help over the past year from Unison, the largest UK union, after the job they had pinned their hopes on left them in acute difficulties. 

This is the group of workers ministers have in their sights as they seek ways to cut record immigration. Home secretary James Cleverly, under pressure from the right wing of the Conservative party, is reviewing options to reduce work-related migration that include higher salary thresholds and limits on the number of dependants care workers can bring. 

Immigration through all channels — study, work-related and humanitarian — has surged since the pandemic, partly reflecting international trends that affect many advanced economies, and partly because of the design of the UK’s post-Brexit visa system. 

Other inflows are now slowing, but visa applications for care workers are still rocketing; more than 100,000 were granted in the year to September, according to official data, almost half the total of all skilled worker visas. 

Unions and employers, however, argue that a clampdown on migrants and their families will achieve nothing and that ministers need to boost funding so that the care sector can pay enough to recruit and retain UK workers. 

“The care system would implode without migrant care staff,” said Christina McAnea, Unison’s general secretary. “The government needs to reform immigration rules, not make them more draconian.”

In a report published on Tuesday, the union detailed the experience of many other migrant workers who had taken care jobs in the UK only to find themselves underpaid, overworked, charged thousands in dubious fees, or stranded with big debts as their employer went bust. 

James Cleverly
Home secretary James Cleverly is reviewing options to reduce work-related migration © Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

“We didn’t expect this kind of work. It is far better in my country,” said Nimesha, who sold her house in Sri Lanka and spent £12,000 on agents’ fees, visas and flights to come to the UK, with a further £2,000 loan for the car needed to cover the long distances between clients.

The reality of the job has been crushing: she leaves home at 7am and is often on the road until 11pm, stumbling around in the dark trying to find the homes of clients for late-night calls. UK staff at the same agency work on much more flexible terms, she noted, and rarely at night. 

But with rent of £1,000 a month for a house shared with another family, it will take her years to earn enough to repay her debts and return home. Like the other workers interviewed by the Financial Times, she spoke under an assumed name because she could not risk antagonising her employer.

The government’s Migration Advisory Committee recommended opening up entry-level care jobs to migrants in 2022 only reluctantly. It worried that workers in effect tied to their employer by the terms of their visa would be vulnerable to this type of exploitation. 

Last month, MAC chair Brian Bell told ministers he was “increasingly concerned about the serious exploitation issues being reported within the care sector”. But he said employers should retain the ability to hire overseas for now, because the government had not addressed the underfunding that made it impossible to recruit at home. 

Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health organisations across England, said the latest migration data showed how urgent it was to fund a plan to resolve the workforce crisis. 

An understaffed care system could not “keep relying on international recruitment to plug these huge gaps”, he said — but at present, overseas staff were essential “to keep it going”. 

If ministers pressed ahead with proposals designed to cut migrant numbers — in particular, restrictions on bringing family — they would make workers’ lives harder without solving the sector’s problems, Unison said. 

The union said their priority should be to vet recruitment agencies more effectively and make it easier for care workers to move job if their employer is exploitative or goes out of business.

Those made redundant have just 60 days to find a new visa sponsor, and can only work 20 hours a week while they are waiting for an application to go through. 

Many migrant workers recently made redundant by another provider are keeping afloat only because they came to the UK with a partner who can also work, according to Patricia.

The senior care assistant from the Philippines, whose earnings help her father pay for the medication he needs at home, also lost her job when her employer went into liquidation this month. She said her work began smoothly in 2021 but worsened over time, with staff often underpaid and asked to travel farther. 

“I love domiciliary care, having conversations with clients . . . but I am traumatised now,” she said, describing 12-hour days in which she often drove more than 100 miles. She hopes a new job, with clients closer to home, will work out, if the Home Office approves the visa. 

“I am lucky I found this company, because they care also about the carers, Without carers, who is doing the care?”

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