Call for rethink as care worker visas now make up two-thirds of those in health and care scheme

There has been a call for a rethink over the issuing of care worker visas with them now making up two-thirds of all those handed out under the health and care scheme.

In the year to June 2023, 77,700 long-term work visas were granted to care workers - a six-fold increase from 12,300 in the year to 2022.

This represented around two-thirds of all 120,300 health and care work visas.

The government added senior care workers to the shortage occupation list in 2021, followed by care workers in February 2022, in a bid to fill the rising number of vacancies since Brexit and the end of freedom of movement.

Since then, there has been a rapid rise in the number of applications which now account for two in five of all skilled work visas, which totalled 189,000 in the year to June, up from 93,000 a year previously.

The top three countries for health and care visas issued in the latest year are from India (30k), Nigeria (18k) and Zimbabwe (17k).

Some critics have called for an end to the scheme for care workers.

Tory MP Jonathan Gullis told Sky News: "We've called for a closure of this route because... there are 30,000 BTech students in health and social care, over a million unemployed and 700,00 on sickness benefits keen to get back to work.

"We believe you can train on the job in this sector and it's up to businesses as well to invest - be that wages, to improved terms and conditions, to make this a more attractive industry. "

But those running care homes say that overseas recruitment is essential.

Sam Monaghan, chief executive of Methodist Homes (MHA) - one of the country's largest charitable care providers - said that this would create real difficulties in the sector.

"Without overseas recruitment, vacancies will continue to be unfilled, the quality of care and support for vulnerable people would suffer and care homes may well have to once again close their doors to new residents," he said.

Vacancy crisis persists despite overseas recruitment drive

The latest figures from industry body Skills for Care show that vacancies are still high.

There were more than 150,000 vacancies across the adult social care sector in England in the year ending March 2023, equivalent to 8.5% of roles vacant.

This was an improvement from 9.2% roles vacant in the previous year, despite the overall demand for jobs growing from 1.78 million to 1.79 million over the same period.

However, the sector currently employs fewer workers than in the last pre-pandemic year.

In the year ending March 2020, there were 1.64 million care workers employed across England with 111,000 (6.3%) vacancies.

The latest figures for care workers employed is 1.635 million while over the same period demand for workers has grown.

The growth in visas for international workers is reflected in this data, with an increase in international recruits from 10,000 in 2020/21 to 70,000 in 2022/23.

Dr Peter William Walsh, senior researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford told Sky News that this route of recruitment is not a good long-term solution to the crisis.

He said: "Demand for overseas care workers is driven in large part due to funding difficulties in the sector.

"The care sector is underfunded by government and workers experience poor conditions, so they tend to have difficulty attracting local workers.

"This big increase will help to alleviate recruiting difficulties in the short run but of course, it doesn't affect to address the underlying causes and conditions that are leading to work shortages."

It pays more to be a warehouse packer than a care worker

One of the major issues facing the care sector is low wages, creating a disincentive for workers to take up jobs where other equally or higher paid jobs are easily accessible.

These are publicly funded roles. In Great Britain, local authorities fund social care via a combination of central government grants and taxation as well as some NHS funding.

And while the government has made international recruitment easier, the issue of low pay in the sector has not been addressed.

Working as a parking enforcement officer or as a packer in a warehouse both pay higher salaries than care work, for example.

Mr Monaghan agrees that funding and pay are issues for the sector.

He said: "At MHA we want to be able to pay our care workers more to help with recruitment. But without additional funding, we are not in a place to increase wages to the level of NHS healthcare assistants.

"We pay at least the Real Living Wage, but we cannot afford to increase this unless our funding from local authorities increases.

"For far too many years, social care has had its funding cut. Councils have been underfunded for years, meaning they can't pay care home providers the true cost of care.

"What also needs to be done is for the government to develop a workforce plan for social care. There is a NHS workforce plan but this fails to mention the care sector."

Issues of exploitation

As well as issues around pay, there are growing concerns around working conditions and the potential exploitation of migrant workers.

UNISON head of social care Gavin Edwards told Sky News that reports of vulnerable staff being exploited are "rife and growing".

He said: "Care workers are frequently trapped in inadequate housing, paid rock-bottom wages for excessive hours and locked into unfair contracts. Many have paid colossal fees to take jobs in the UK.

"They may be unable to leave a location even when they're not on shift or told to pay back huge sums to the company when they raise concerns about their working conditions or service quality. Sometimes this is backed with threats of deportation."

Additionally, there have been signs that the visa system itself may be being exploited.

A Sky News investigation spoke to one woman from Nigeria who had travelled on a care worker visa from Nigeria only to find that the job she had travelled for did not exist.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "The public rightly expect us to control our borders and we remain committed to reducing net migration over time, while ensuring we have the skills our economy and public services needs.

"We have robust measures in place to prevent abuse of our immigration system and we will always take decisive action if employers break the rules, including by revoking sponsor licences when necessary."

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