Skip to main content

Citizens Advice and others highlight growing problem of exploitation of migrant workers in the care sector


Frontline advisers at Citizens Advice seeing growing number of care workers trapped in difficult situations

Date of Publication:
18 March 2024

A number of reports and articles published last week have drawn attention to the exploitation of migrant workers in the UK care sector.

Image credit: UK GovernmentLast Monday, Citizens Advice published a report about how the design of the visa system is driving exploitation of care workers. You can read the report online here.

Citizens Advice says its frontline advisers are seeing a growing number of people who had been recruited from abroad to work as carers, but on arrival in the UK found themselves in extremely difficult situations that they are unable to escape from.

The root of the problem stems from the fact these people are on Health and Care Worker visa.

Citizens Advice explained: "The migrant care workers coming to us for help are on the Health and Care Worker visa. This is a restrictive visa - it ties the visa holder's right to live and work in the UK to a specific job and sponsor, and limits their access to welfare support. This creates a power-imbalance between employer and employee that seriously reduces a person's ability to enforce their rights at work or even leave an exploitative job. Restrictive work visas are not new and aren't necessarily problematic if the work pays well and has good terms and conditions. However, in recent years, to ease growing labour shortages, restrictive visas have been expanded on a large scale. They're now increasingly used for jobs with low pay and poor terms and conditions."

Problems identified by Citizens Advice with the visa system include:

  • People are scared of being dismissed and losing their visa.
  • Losing their job and visa is a risk many simply can't afford to take.
  • Visa rules mean finding a new job and sponsor is not easy.
  • There is no safety net if people are struggling or lose their job.

"The consequences of a visa that seems almost designed to enable exploitation, and an enforcement system that fails to protect workers, is predictable. In the 150 cases we reviewed, we've seen countless examples of poor treatment and serious exploitation, as well as violations of visa conditions", Citizens Advice added.

Citizens Advice advisers have provided help and support, including by issuing food and fuel bank vouchers and helping people access other charitable support and find new jobs, but the report warns that problems with care workers being exploited will keep growing unless something is done to address its true causes.

"I don't think we've seen even the tip of the iceberg yet", one Citizens Advice adviser said.

The report makes a number of recommendations and says what is really needed is a Single Enforcement Body for employment rights that is accessible to all workers and has the resources and powers to seek redress on their behalf.

"This body needs to have secure reporting channels that separate the enforcement of labour rights from immigration enforcement, so that anyone who is worried about their immigration status, or has lost their visa, is still able to seek help," the report recommends.

Also last week, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) published an investigation of the exploitation of care workers following research undertaken together with Citizens Advice. You can read it here.

The investigation gathered the testimonies of almost 175 people working for approximately 80 care providers via the Health and Care Worker visa.

"Their stories reveal that the people who make up a vital section of our social care workforce fear raising concerns about labour abuses – in large part because the existing visa system makes them dependent on their employer for their right to stay and work in the UK. And any complaint, even if upheld, can start a ticking clock leaving them with barely two months to avoid the risk of deportation", the article states.

TBIJ highlighted that one key factor that came up again and again in the investigation is that workers feel trapped in these situations because their visa arrangements penalise whistleblowing.

The article explains: " Workers depend on their employer for the right to stay and work in the UK; losing their job for any reason means they have, at most, 60 days to find a new work sponsor or leave the UK, once they are contacted by the Home Office. Some also live in housing provided by their employers, which they can lose if they leave their job or are dismissed. All of this, experts say, leaves them at greater risk of exploitation."

Few of the workers who spoke to Citizens Advice or TBIJ said they would be willing to blow the whistle on their sponsor. The founder of the charity Migrants at Work told TBIJ that immigration rules penalise whistleblowers and one solution would be for protections for whistleblowers to be inserted into the rules.

Meanwhile, The Independent reported last week that academics studying exploitation in the UK found that short-term visa routes for care workers and domestic workers create conditions enabling the exploitation of workers, putting them at risk of modern slavery.

BBC News also published an article last week on the issue of forced labour and the exploitation of migrant workers. It focuses on the work of the Salvation Army to assist survivors of modern slavery.

The director of anti-trafficking for the Salvation Army told BBC News that forced labour is common in the construction, agriculture, hospitality, domestic and sex industries, but there is "growing concern" about the care sector.

As the Home Office announced last week, new laws related to care workers came into effect on Monday, 11 March. Care workers will be restricted from bringing dependants and care providers in England acting as sponsors for migrants will be required to register with the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

The Home Office noted: "There is clear evidence that care workers have been offered visas under false pretences, travelling thousands of miles for jobs that simply don't exist or to be paid far below the minimum wage required for their work, exploiting them while undercutting British workers."

Minister for Social Care, Helen Whately MP, said international recruitment and more immigration were not long-term solutions to our social care needs in the UK. She said the Government wants to boost the "homegrown workforce" by reforming social care careers, including by introducing the first ever national career path for care workers and a new care qualification.