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Helpline sees rise in suspected modern slavery cases among care workers

The UK’s modern slavery and exploitation helpline has seen a “significant rise” in cases of suspected labour abuse and forced labour in the care sector, according to a new report.

There were 712 potential victims of modern slavery indicated in the care sector in 2022, making up almost a fifth (18%) of all potential victims indicated through the helpline, the charity which runs it said.

The total cases of modern slavery indicated in the care sector last year made up 10% of all modern slavery cases raised through the helpline in 2022, it added.

A total of 106 cases were reported to the helpline last year, up from just seven in 2017.

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Unseen, a charity which runs the helpline and works to support survivors of trafficking and modern slavery, said the figure is continuing to grow in 2023.

Workforce shortages post-pandemic and after Brexit “has led to more workers being recruited at speed and without safeguarding in place”, meaning the potential for exploitation has risen, the charity said.

The number of cases more than doubled in the first quarter of 2022 (12) to 27 in the same period this year, while the number of vulnerable workers indicated in cases rose from 54 in the first three months of 2022 to 109 in the same period this year, the organisation said.

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said the report has raised “a serious issue” which will be followed up on, adding: “It’s important that we get the right protection to people and that the law is complied with.”

In its Who Cares? report, the charity stated: “Throughout 2022 and into 2023 the helpline has seen a significant rise in the number of cases indicating labour abuse and forced labour in the care sector. Many involve foreign nationals.

“As the UK opens up new visa routes for employment to meet labour shortages, the potential for exploitation increases. Many workers who come to the UK do not know their rights or how to raise a concern.”

Based on reports to the helpline in the first six months of 2023, people contacting the helpline had an average amount of debt of £11,800, for recruitment, visa, and travel costs.

Unseen said the rise in cases could be due to several factors, including awareness of modern slavery being higher across the sector, leading to more people contacting the helpline.

But it added: “The change in availability and sources of labour resulting from Brexit and the pandemic has led to more workers being recruited at speed and without safeguarding in place, and therefore the potential for exploitation to occur has increased.”

The charity said some care workers can arrive in the UK with “substantial debt” due to paying thousands of pounds to third-party facilitators in their home country, while in other situations workers are paying huge fees directly to their employers at the care companies for certificates of sponsorship.

Unseen warned of people having to work long hours with few breaks to try to pay off their debts, with some becoming “trapped” due to feeling “unable to leave because they are being threatened by their exploiter or they’re being forced to work long hours and have no other means of income”.

In some cases the debt can be as high as £25,000 which, coupled with the “likelihood of deductions being made from an individual’s pay for accommodation, food and transport” can leave people in a “cycle where they will never be able to pay off the debt”, Unseen said.

A report from the health and care watchdog last week warned of a rising problem in the care sector regarding this issue.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) said that while adult social care providers said recruiting staff from overseas “has enhanced the diversity and skills of their team and helped resolve staffing issues”, there is a “growing trend of unethical international recruitment practices”.

The regulator said it made 37 referrals for concerns regarding modern slavery, labour exploitation and international visas in 2022/23, which was more than four times the number made in 2021/22 when eight referrals were made.

Unseen’s report, published on Monday, concluded that the issue of vulnerable workers falling victim to modern slavery is unlikely to go away.

It said: “As the UK continues to struggle with labour shortages, the potential for vulnerable workers to be targeted persists. Migrant workers are needed in sectors such as agriculture and care, but the support available for people who are thinking about travelling to the UK to take up employment is poor. Not enough information is given to workers about what is and isn’t acceptable practice, such as paying to secure a job.”

Among its recommendations, it said there must be “sufficient information about workers’ rights and transfer of sponsorship” given to people intending to travel to the UK to work in the care sector using a Health and Care visa, and called for extra checks at visa issuing centres in countries of origin “to ensure visa applicants have not paid recruitment fees to a third party”.

The charity said there must be stricter guidelines around repayment clauses and exit fees and there must be “a clear channel for reporting to the Home Office and Department of Health employers who charge workers for certificates of sponsorship”.

Salaries of care sector staff must be boosted, while mandatory modern slavery training should be completed by all CQC inspectors and local authority staff, Unseen added.

It also called for Government support to be provided to migrant workers whose sponsor’s licence has been revoked.

A Government spokesman said: “We strongly condemn offering Health and Care Worker visa holders employment under false pretences.

“The Government does not tolerate illegal activity in the labour market and any accusations of illegal employment practices will be thoroughly looked into. Those found operating unlawfully may face prosecution and/or removal from the sponsorship register.”