Widespread exploitation of carers recruited from abroad is the “the number one priority” for the agency that investigates criminality affecting workers in England and Wales.
The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) told Sky News that the Health and Care Worker visa system is being abused by criminals, leading to “a constant stream of allegations” of fraud and modern slavery.
GLAA Senior Investigating Officer Martin Plimmer said there are more than 30 ongoing investigations into care agencies operating illegally and that his organisation still “doesn’t know the full extent” of the problem.
“It is our number one priority at the moment,” he said. “It’s the one area, the sector of business – because we deal with labour exploitation – where we have the most intelligence coming into us. Care is by far the number one issue for us as an agency.”
He explained: “Two years ago the care sector wasn’t on our radar at all”, adding that cases shot up since February 2022 when the government added care workers to the country’s Shortage Occupation List allowing people to be recruited from overseas. Carers now account for two in five of all skilled work visas.
Mr Plimmer said there are companies established nationwide with the intention of exploiting workers desperate to come to the UK.
“The sole purpose of these criminals is to use these people as cash cows. They are running businesses at a much reduced cost because they’re not paying them what they’re supposed to. They’re also charging them excessive fees.”
Sky News has found several victims of this practice across the country. We’ve previously reported how human traffickers are using the Skilled Worker Visa route and how foreign care workers are left destitute, relying on foodbanks to survive.
Some of those illegal recruiters are based in Britain, operating fake and fraudulent care agencies.
‘Mary’, not her real name, told us she began looking for work in the UK in order to support her sick husband and teenage son. She was working in the Philippines but thought she could earn more here.
She found an online advert for employment with a care agency in the North of England and had a successful interview on Zoom with a director of the company.
She said they then told her to transfer £4,000 – a fee which is illegal for recruiters to charge under UK law. In return she was provided with a certificate of sponsorship, outlining her offer of 39 hours a week as a carer and allowing her to be granted a Health and Care Worker visa.
‘I spent a lot of money and I cannot go back’
Mary said she used all her savings and borrowed money from her sister and a friend, but she believed her salary would provide a “better life” for her family back home.
It was only when she landed at the airport in England in July and was met by her recruiter that he told her there was no job.
Since then she’s been given accommodation in a shared house and a small food allowance but “not a single day” of the paid work she was promised.
As she described her situation she became tearful. “We need money to pay my debt in the Philippines,” she said. “And also I need to support my family because they are relying on me.”
She said she feels trapped. Under the terms of her visa, she is only allowed to work full-time for her sponsor – and any part-time work, limited to 20 hours extra per week, has to also be in the care sector.
“My family doesn’t know my situation here and I don’t know how to tell them,” she said. “They will be upset.”
“I spent a lot of money and I cannot go back,” she added, saying her best hope is trying to find a legitimate care organisation to transfer her sponsorship.
She’s scared to report the agency to the authorities which is why Sky News is not naming the company.
But it is one of several agencies that only began operating after the government changed the visa rules for carers. It remains on the list of government-approved sponsors for overseas hiring.
‘They’ll do a free shift’
Sky News has spoken to several care homes who described being bombarded by calls from new care agencies with names they don’t recognise.
One care home administrator in northwest England said: “We probably get about four or five calls a day asking if we need agency staff and a lot now are phoning and offering that they’ll do a free shift.”
She said they also get migrants turning up at the home asking for work “two or three times a day”.
As Sky News filmed at the care home, a man and woman, wet through from the pouring rain, knocked on the door, hoping to find some work. They were turned away.
The woman, from Pakistan, said in broken English: “We are looking for work permit, like most of the care homes are giving work permits or jobs.”
‘Very close to people trafficking’
Neil Russell runs PJ Care which has homes in Milton Keynes and Peterborough. He told Sky News: “Over the last six to eight months we’ve seen an increase in approaches from care agencies offering staff to cover shifts. Some of the approaches are very desperate, almost begging us to use them.”
“These new agencies feel a little bit fly-by-night. And it’s quite concerning that we could end up with somebody working here who’s not got the clearances, not got the right training and could end up damaging or harming one of our residents that we’re trying to provide care for.”
His company offers legitimate Health and Care Worker visa sponsorship, but last year he paused overseas recruitment after discovering an agent he’d paid to find staff abroad had also illegally charged a worker for her visa.
“It’s very, very close to people trafficking,” he said, about a practice he now believes is widespread in his industry.
Asked how much bogus recruiters are charging workers he said: “We’re talking about £15,000 and then we’re paying the same amount.”
“£30,000 to bring somebody over – it’s probably more than the transporters are getting for the rubber dinghies coming across the Channel. And they’re doing less work for it. It’s ridiculous.”
A Home Office spokesperson 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.”
Additional reporting by Nick Stylianou, communities producer.