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The rise of modern slavery in care

By CHM freelance writer Eleanore Robinson

Modern slavery in becoming more and more prevalent in the social care workforce.

The CQC reported double the rise in referrals for modern slavery abuses across the health and care sectors in 2022 than the previous year.

In addition, the number of potential victims working in social care calling Unseen’s Modern Slavery Helpline leaped from 63 in 2021 to 708 in 2022, due to a combination of the Covid pandemic and Brexit, the charity said. 

NHS fallout
Unseen director Justine Carter explained that the tightening of regulations to work in the NHS had led people in other countries to look at the care sector as a way of coming into the UK to carry out similar work. The charity’s concerns have been highlighted in a recent report.

Carter said: “Quite often they are agency workers. We have had some instances where people are being recruited in their home country and being told ‘there is a job for you’.

“We have also got instances where people are starting to work when they are on a particular visa within the UK. That might be a student visa where someone is allowed to work a certain number of hours a week, then they might work outside their visa requirements. These elements can create an environment where people become more exploited.”

Carter added that, while there might be the odd rogue recruitment agency, normally it is a rogue individual within a recruitment agency or a third party who organises access to workers for a recruitment agency.

She said: “Where there is a need for workers and they are readily available, rogue actors will look at where the least resistance is for getting these people in.”

Workers most likely to report exploitation come from India, Zimbabwe or Nigeria, according to the Unseen analysis.

Sponsor duties
The rise in cases in modern slavery is seen by employment lawyers as within the context of an increased reliance on international recruitment, agency staff and other outsourcing options to address the ongoing recruitment and retention challenges”.

Legal director at law firm Bevan Brittan Louise Mansfield said: “From an immigration perspective, where providers are granted a sponsor licence there is an ongoing duty to ensure that migrant workers are not being exploited. UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI) can conduct an audit at any time.”

Non-compliance with licence terms can result in the licence being suspended or, even, revoked.

She added that employing illegal workers is a criminal offence that can lead to a civil penalty or, even, a custodial sentence.

Health and safety regulators can also be called in.  

Due diligence
For these reasons, Unseen’s Carter urges providers to do due diligence on the staffing agencies they use.

When new workers join, providers should make sure they have got their own mobile phone, give details to contact their next of kin with their address, and have not got people turning up with the same details.

Red flags of exploitation can include concerns that the employee is at work outside of their allotted hours, excessive tiredness or stress, never bringing or buying food items when at work, and regular transport to and from work.  

If a provider does suspect a worker could be a victim of modern slavery, employers can seek legal advice about how to report the concerns to the Home Office via the available channels.

Bevan Brittan’s Mansfield said: “Providers should however be discreet and, whilst they may offer support to any potential victims, they must also make sure they do not do anything that could make the victim’s situation worse.”

Providers who have concerns about the welfare of one or more of their workers can call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700 in confidence.  

Antislavery charity Unseen is now in preliminary discussions with CQC about jointly raising awareness of modern slavery and improving regulatory powers.  

A Department of Business and Trade spokesperson added: “The Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and Gangmaster Labour Abuse Authority work with organisations to take action against businesses who have unethical and illegal employment practices.”

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