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Over half of non-British care workers come from poorer countries

Analysis raises concerns that the sector has relied on overseas labour after Brexit.

By Aisha Majid

As business leaders call for immigration rules to be relaxed, new data reveals the extent to which the social care sector depends on workers from less wealthy nations, many of which face their own care staff shortages. Fifty-one per cent (84,500) of the 165,000 people from overseas working as adult care workers in 2021-22 are from countries considered by the World Bank to be either low or lower-middle income.

The largest group was those from Nigeria (12 per cent of the total overseas workforce, or 20,000 people), followed by India (8 per cent, 13,500) and Ghana (5 per cent, 8,600) according to Adult Social Care Workforce Data Set weighted data provided to Spotlight by Skills for Care. Care workers make up three-quarters of the UK adult social care workforce, the rest being senior care workers, managers and nurses. 

Migrants have historically made a significant contribution to many of the UK’s economic sectors, including hospitality, transport and storage, and health and social work. The UK’s exit from the EU, however, has reduced freedom of movement and exacerbated chronic labour shortages. Lord Wolfson, the Conservative peer and chief executive of the retail chain Next, has warned that the government’s restrictive immigration policy is hampering the country’s growth. Wolfson, a prominent Brexit advocate, has proposed that businesses that need foreign workers be allowed to recruit from abroad. To ensure they do so only as a last resort these employers, he added, should pay a visa tax on foreign workers’ salaries.

​While workers from the UK constitute the bulk of the UK’s care workforce, workers from overseas have played an important role in filing vacancies. In some parts of the country such as London, some one in four care workers are from overseas. There have been concerns that the sector has relied on “cheap” overseas labour.

The adult social care sector has been plagued with issues of recruitment and retention. According to the latest annual report from Skills for Care, vacancies in 2021-22 reached a record high, with 10.7 per cent of posts in England unfilled. Low pay and precarious working conditions are among the commonly cited contributing factors. The average independent care worker earns £9.50 an hour, meaning more than 80 per cent of jobs pay better, and almost a quarter of care jobs are on precarious zero-hours contracts.

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Foreign staff make up almost 20 per cent of the care workforce. The number of new starters from outside the UK has risen this year since care workers were added to the shortage occupation list. Between February and August 2022, 11 per cent of workers new to their role within the year had arrived from outside the UK, compared with 4 per cent during the same period in 2021.  

Earlier this year the government-commissioned Migration Advisory Committee found that while increasing recruitment  from overseas may help to plug some of the sector’s workforce gaps, some possible immigration policies would bring risks, most notably, it said, that “migrant workers in low paid positions may be exploited”. A report published in August 2022 following an 18-month study by a research consortium including the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Nottingham found that women recruited from overseas for live-in care roles were particularly vulnerable to exploitation, isolated in clients’ homes and dependent upon agencies. 

Margaret Beels, who leads labour market enforcement at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has identified workers in the adult social care sector as vulnerable to exploitation, particularly those in live-in roles or employed through agencies.

[See also: Wes Streeting: “After a decade of decline, Labour will make the NHS fit for the future”

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