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23 Jun 2022

The Observer via Guardian

UK: Investigation finds migrant care workers charged thousands in illegal fees to recruitment agencies

"Migrant care workers came to help the UK. Now they’re trapped in debt bondage", 18 June 2022

Meera Stephen came to Britain with a big suitcase and even bigger dreams. The 27-year-old had left Kerala in south India to work at a care home in Manchester, one of thousands of migrant workers to come after a government recruitment drive to fill more than 100,000 vacancies in social care.

The job would pay £10 an hour – just above minimum wage. But it came at a price. In exchange for securing her employment, she would pay a recruitment agent 1.3m rupees – about £13,700.

Stephen, whose name has been changed to protect her, is one of a growing number of migrant workers being charged to work in Britain’s care sector.

Requiring workers to pay recruitment fees for finding or trying to find them jobs is illegal in the UK and breaches international labour standards.

The practice has previously been exposed in Dubai and the Gulf – most recently with migrant labourers employed on World Cup-related projects in Qatar – and is considered a human rights abuse that leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation.

But an Observer investigation has uncovered a booming industry of recruitment agencies supplying workers to care homes and domiciliary care firms across Britain that pass recruitment costs on to candidates.

Workers from countries including India, the Philippines, Ghana and Zimbabwe – many of whom arrived via a new visa scheme for care workers launched in February – report being charged between £2,000 and £18,000 in illegal fees.

Most cannot speak publicly because their visas are tied to their employers.

But testimony from 10 workers, interviews with charities and labour experts and analysis of payslips, contracts and online chat groups for workers reveals the practice is widespread, with dozens of agencies believed to be charging the fees...

To tackle the problems, experts and campaigners are calling for greater oversight of the care sector and an overhaul of the Home Office visa sponsorship system. Some have called for jobs to be advertised on a government portal to make it easier for candidates to apply directly, cutting out agents and other middlemen.

There are also calls for care to become a GLAA-licensed sector, like agriculture. This would mean all recruitment agents, both inside and outside the UK, would need a licence to supply workers, with conditions stipulating they “must not charge a fee to a worker for any work finding services” and the agency able to inspect applicants and investigate concerns.

Neill Wilkins, head of the migrant workers’ programme at the Institute for Human Rights and Business, said recruitment fees were trapping workers in conditions akin to modern-day slavery and called for urgent action to tackle the abuses.