Olivia Bridge, a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, discusses the Home Office’s “bizarre” decision to “pull the plug on the care sector” with its new immigration rules, and calls on the government to design a “Care Worker Visa”.
Although the UK formally departed from the European Union this January, business is still trudging along as normal. That is until the divorce papers are finalised at the end of the transitional period this year.
This means that as the sun sets on December 31, 2020, the UK will rise to a new era where frictionless mobility across the continent has ceased and been replaced by stricter border controls and blue passports.
Yet it is quickly emerging that the long-lauded ‘transformational’ immigration system may leave many British industries and businesses high and dry. Undoubtedly, the loss of and cheap EU labour utilised through Free Movement will be felt across the nation.
It’s bizarre why the Home Office would pull the plug on the care sector, especially when other sectors that have been tarnished with the ‘low skilled’ brush.
However, the burden will disproportionately fall onto the shoulders of the care sector, as not only is the workforce dependent on EU migration, but the new points-based-system actively evaporates access to these integral talent pools. Essentially as of 2021, there will be no feasible way to hire carers from abroad.
The tripwire for migrant care workers comes down to the sectors’ abysmal rate of pay, as migrants will need to score points based on array of factors, including qualifications, ability to speak English and salary to qualify for a General Work Visa.
Although the government did listen to businesses by lowering the income requirement of the Tier 2 Visa down from £30,000 to £25,600 – and in some cases as low as £20,480 if the applicant can fill a job on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) – the thresholds still aren’t low enough to accommodate for care workers who can earn as little as £16,000.
If that’s not harsh enough, the government has even severed the one lifeline former Prime Minister Theresa May threw to care workers and other low-paid sectors in the 2018 White Paper. Albeit bleak, the 12-month Temporary Visa was the only remaining option to recruit foreign staff who fell short from scoring the acquired points, allowing staff to work in the UK on a temporary basis for up to one year.
At the very least, it would make sense for the government to design a ‘Care Worker Visa’ that echoes to that of the NHS Visa.
But the visa did have its faults: for the care sector, industry voices found it counterproductive in that it would perpetuate the already high turnover rate and could even jeopardise patient safety. On organisation, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), considered the route paved the way for increased human trafficking and exploitative labour. Still, now that the government has axed the route entirely, the care sector could be in dire straits before the era of the UK’s ‘independence’ has even properly begun.
At the heart of this problem is the fact that care workers are already in short supply and severe demand.
Even with the help of Free Movement, vacancy rates sit at an uncomfortable 122,000. The population isn’t getting any younger either, with experts estimating an additional 580,000 members of staff will be needed to cater to the ageing population in the next 15 years. Yet, in London alone, up to 40% of the care workforce is made up of migrant staff.
A lethal combination of near-bankruptcy and low wages has forced the social care sector to the brink.
In light of this, it’s bizarre why the Home Office would pull the plug on the care sector, especially when other sectors that have been tarnished with the ‘low skilled’ brush still have a leg up through the immigration rules to prevent a cliff-edge.
The agricultural and horticultural sectors similarly rely on heavy EU migration and workers are also low-paid, yet migrant staff now have their own route in the immigration rulebook: the Agricultural Seasonal Workers Scheme should keep the sector ticking over in post-Brexit Britain with 10,000 recruits possible per year. The government even expanded the scheme when farmers requested more visa spaces.
At the very least, it would make sense for the government to design a ‘Care Worker Visa’ that echoes to that of the NHS Visa, marking care workers exempt from the salary requirement and even offering a visa discount. Such a route would encourage workers to come to the UK – but evidently the Home Office isn’t keen on this idea.
The lengths this government will go to in order to restrict immigration and crackdown on public spending has no bounds.
Another solution would be to put carers on the SOL alongside teachers, nurses, doctors, chefs and ballet dancers among many others. Having said that, carers’ salaries would need to be vastly improved across the board. For migrant carers to score the 70 points necessary for a UK visa, they would need to be paid the minimum bandwidth of £20,480.
But it appears only crickets continue to bleat for the sector as the government makes little moves towards pragmatically approaching the problem. Instead, a lethal combination of near-bankruptcy and low wages – where part of carers’ responsibilities remain unpaid and where a quarter of staff are backed into zero-hour contracts – has forced the sector to the brink.
The lengths this government will go to in order to restrict immigration and crackdown on public spending has no bounds, even if the collateral damage infers the highest debt of all: the sacrifice of our elderly, disabled and sick loved ones. While care workers are starved out of work and providers stifled from hiring talent from overseas, only the most vulnerable people in our society will pay the highest price of the government’s relentless anti-migrant hostility.