Amid a significant labor shortage, the U.K.’s care sector is currently facing a surge in cases of labor exploitation and debt bondage, with a national modern slavery helpline hearing from double the number of victims in the sector in 2021 compared to 2020.
An investigation from The Observer reveals cases of how illegal recruitment fees, deception and the Home Office visa sponsorship scheme are creating serious vulnerabilities among the U.K.’s migrant population.
Illegal recruitment fees driving debt bondage
Migrant care workers are being trapped in debt before they even start their jobs due to recruitment fees which are likely illegal.
One woman from south India who went to work in a Manchester-based care home under a government initiative aiming to address the sector’s labor shortages shared her story with The Observer.
Her salary was set at £10 (approximately, $12), but she was expected to pay 1.3m rupees (around $16,600) to a recruitment agent to secure the job. With the agent withholding her residence permit, she is left working “day and night” to pay off her debt as soon as she can.
This is not an isolated case. The Observer’s investigation reveals that workers from several countries in Asia and Africa, including the Philippines, Ghana and Zimbabwe, are being charged between £2,000 and £18,000 (around $2,500 – $22,000) in illegal fees.
According to the International Labour Organization’s definition, workers should not be charged “any costs incurred in the recruitment process in order for workers to secure employment or placement, regardless of the manner, timing or location of their imposition or collection.”
Repayment clauses, deception and forced labor
Several other red flags came up during the investigation, including repayment clauses in workers’ contracts. These clauses are common in the private care sector and mean that workers must pay a fee if they leave before their contact term ends, which can be up to two or three years. These clauses risk trapping people in exploitative conditions.
Deception is also common in the recruitment phase. The charity Kanlungan told The Observer about a Filipino couple who came to the U.K. to take up offers of jobs as physiotherapists. When they arrived, they found out they would instead be doing care work in private homes.
In another extremely alarming case, an 18-year-old woman was told she would be able to work in the beauty sector. She was brought to the U.K. from West Africa and forced to work as a domiciliary carer for 10 hours per day and seven days per week. Her wages were being sent to someone else’s bank account.
How we can better protect migrant care workers
Experts and campaigners are calling for systemic changes to better protect people from exploitation in the U.K. care sector. Some are calling for jobs to be advertised on a government portal to enable candidates to apply directly and in this way avoid being exploited or deceived by agents.
Another common ask is for recruitment agents both in the U.K. and abroad to have to apply for a licence to supply workers for care jobs. This way, agents would have to comply with a ban on charging workers for their recruitment.
The Home Office visa sponsorship system also needs revision to ensure it is not creating vulnerabilities to trafficking and exploitation. Under the current system, overseas domestic workers residing in the UK are tied to their employers, putting them at risk of being trapped in modern slavery and exploitation.
The Freedom United community is urging the U.K. government to reinstate the pre-2012 visa regime to better protect overseas domestic workers. Join us today.