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England’s care sector would be haemorrhaging workers were it not for a surge in overseas hiring that has raised widespread concerns over the exploitation of migrants in effect tied to their jobs, data published on Thursday showed.

Care homes in England are also relying on overseas workers far more than higher-paying homes in Scotland and Northern Ireland, according to separate figures released by the Home Office that will add fuel to calls for an overhaul of Britain’s legal migration rules. 

Skills for Care, the workforce planning body for the sector, said an estimated 70,000 people took up care jobs in England after arriving in the UK in the year to March 2023, following the loosening of visa criteria for these roles, and a further 30,000 to 40,000 between April and August.

Their arrival helped lower the vacancy rate in the adult social care sector to 9.9 per cent, from a peak of 10.6 per cent the previous year — though it remains higher than before the pandemic, and much higher than the average of 3.4 per cent for the UK economy as a whole. 

But the surge in international recruitment has only just been enough to offset a continued outflow of British and EU nationals from the sector, Skills for Care said. 

Meanwhile, unions are receiving daily reports from migrant workers in care homes who describe conditions “verging on modern slavery”, but cannot leave their job because employers say they must repay relocation and training costs running into thousands of pounds, according to Gavin Edwards, head of social care at Unison. 

Growing concerns over exploitation — shared by employers, recruiters and enforcement agencies as well as unions — are one reason why the government’s independent Migration Advisory Committee called last week for the abolition of one of the main routes through which employers can hire overseas workers in sectors facing chronic staff shortages, known as the “shortage occupation list”. 

It said the list, which allows visa conditions to be loosened for some roles, was liable to drive down wages and leave workers open to abuses.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Labour party conference this week, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper told the Financial Times that “pay and conditions seem to be the problem” causing shortages in many occupations.

She set out Labour’s plan, which is similar to a proposal made by the advisory committee, to create a task force that could identify causes of workforce shortages in specific sectors and suggest ways to tackle them beyond the migration system, including by improving pay and training.

According to data provided by the Home Office via a freedom of information request made by the FT, health and care visas represented 35 per cent of all skilled worker visas issued in England in the first six months of 2023, but only 22 per cent in Scotland and 14 per cent in Northern Ireland. 

Scotland and Northern Ireland increased care worker pay earlier this year to rates above the UK’s statutory minimum and Scotland announced it would increase its rate further to £12 an hour in April of next year.

Scotland is home to 8 per cent of the UK’s population, but took about 5 per cent of all non-care sponsorship visas issued in Britain, and only 2.5 per cent of those issued for care in the first half of the year.

Edwards said pay was only “marginally” better in Scotland but that Scottish local authorities were more likely to employ care workers directly — on better terms than in the private sector — than English counterparts, who had a legal obligation to create a local market in care. 

“Low pay and poor conditions are the major driver of shortages in the care sector,” said Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford university. “The Scottish data are interesting because they suggest that paying care workers above the minimum wage has been associated with lower use of the care visa there.”

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