Playing roulette with our essential services

19 Jan 24

Curbing the migrant care workforce has serious consequences for vulnerable staff, writes Unison general secretary Christina McAnea.

Christina McNae - Credit: Peter Searle


The government has put the final hammer blow to our crumbling social care system. The home secretary’s announcement of new immigration plans will sacrifice migrant care workers and risk a total collapse of the UK’s care system, just to appease extremist Tory backbenchers.

The health and care worker visa was introduced in 2020 to plug workforce gaps, but because headlines of soaring immigration numbers are compounding PM Rishi Sunak’s polling problems, he’s playing roulette with our essential services.

Had he, or his ministers, spoken to any employer in the care sector, they would know that any plans to curb the migrant care workforce will cause utter disaster. Not allowing migrant care workers to bring any dependants with them will do exactly that. Potential recruits will be put off coming to the UK, and the ones already here may have to send dependants home when their visas come up for renewal.

Staff vacancies will soar from the current number of 152,000, and I don’t see a queue of British workers waiting to take up those posts. We will see care homes closing and care companies going bust.

Underfunding, low wages and poor working conditions are to blame for employees leaving for jobs in other sectors, such as retail and hospitality. To overcome these dire staff shortages, employers are increasingly recruiting care workers from overseas, including from India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. These employees make up 16% of the social care workforce in England, according to Skills for Care.

When the announcement came, Unison had just released findings of appalling abuse of the migrant workers propping up social care in its report, Expendable Labour.

It outlines shocking details, including threats of dismissal and deportation, excessive hours (or no work at all) and racial abuse. Care workers hired from overseas have had money deducted from their wages to cover dubious fees, have faced demands to repay thousands of pounds when they try to move jobs, and have been forced to pay extortionate rents for substandard accommodation. Before they can even travel to the UK, many must go through predatory recruitment agents that demand excessive amounts of money. Some migrant jobseekers sell all they own to pay these ‘relocation’ costs.

These new plans will leave migrant care workers vulnerable to more abuse, as they will be isolated, with no close family with them.

Little regard

Everyone in the UK can see what little regard this government has for the people who rely on social care, for care workers and their employers. But why would ministers be so careless with people’s lives and so reckless with one of the biggest industries in the UK?

Maybe it’s because the care workforce is predominantly made up of low-paid women, doing work the government views as low value and low intelligence. This was made clear in December’s announcement by the home secretary that international students on postgraduate research schemes will be allowed to bring dependants, as “we always want to attract the global brightest and best”.

I always thought we were a country that strived to be caring and welcoming. But what’s more callous than putting our older and vulnerable citizens at risk and being hostile to the people who come here to care for them?

Image Credit | Peter-Searle

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