Caregivers recruited overseas to care for the elderly and disabled in Britain are being charged thousands of pounds in illegal fees and forced to work in exploitative conditions to pay off their debts.
A Observer investigation uncovered a network of agencies supplying workers to care homes and home care agencies that charge applicants a recruitment fee.
By law, agents cannot charge a fee to find or try to find candidate work. The practice of charging recruitment fees, previously denounced in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, is considered a human rights violation that leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation.
But the fees are often disguised as a ‘processing’, ‘service’ or ‘administration’ fee, with many workers unaware that they are illegal. Often the cost breakdown or total amount is not fully disclosed until the worker reaches the UK, by which time they have already paid for flights and relocation.
Indian, Filipino, Ghanaian and Zimbabwean workers are among those tasked with recruiting them, with fees ranging from £3,000 to £18,000.
Some have become trapped in debt bondage – a form of modern day slavery – because of the fees. Alleged victims have described how officers deducted money from their salaries and withheld their passports or residence permits until they had repaid the amount owed.
Others say they were abused and threatened or paid less than minimum wage. They cannot express themselves because the system of sponsorship of caregivers implies that their visa is linked to their employer.
The findings come as Britain battles a worsening social care staffing crisis, with an estimate 105,000 vacancies nationwide and thousands of patients facing long delays in care.
Many social workers have used a government visa system introduced in February, which added social workers to the list of shortage occupations to attract international applicants.
But the evidence collected by the Observer – including interviews with alleged victims, charities and labor experts; conversations with agents; and analysis of payslips, contracts and online chat rooms – reveals that the new visa route is being widely abused by agencies and traffickers, exposing workers to exploitation.
In an exchange with an undercover reporter last week, an agency supplying Indian workers to nursing homes said the fee for applicants to arrange work at £10 an hour would be £1. 7 million rupees, or around £17,600.
Another cited £4,500 for a ‘placement package’ including a certificate of sponsorship, a cost normally borne by the employer and ‘visa application assistance’ – something only lawyers and immigration advisers registered can legally charge.
Todd Maforimbo, who has researched labor supply in the UK health sector and now campaigns against workplace abuse, said he had been contacted by more than 30 billed care workers . “People come looking for a better life but they end up in worse situations,” he said.
Modern slavery in the care sector is a growing problem, with several raids by the government agency against workplace violence recently, and data from charities and the Care Quality Commission suggesting a rise in cases.
In a case in North Wales, nine Indian workers were found sleeping on mattresses in cramped and unsanitary conditions. Colleagues at the care homes where they worked reported that they were ‘tired and smelly’ and saw them eating leftovers from residents’ meals.
The workers, who came to Britain as students, are said to have worked up to 80 hours a week at minimum wage, with their wages controlled by their alleged exploiters.
An internal report from the Gangmasters and Labor Abuse Authority, seen by the Observer, said more monitoring was needed from care homes as well as universities to “prevent debt bondage and highlight potential traffickers”.
The Department of Health said it takes reports of illegal employment practices in the sector “very seriously” and that any agencies or employers found to be operating illegally could be subject to prosecution.
It added that vendors must adhere to the ethical standards set out in its code of practice for international recruitment, which prohibits recruitment fees and states that all costs incurred by agencies must be charged to employers.