Exploitation in care sector a ‘real concern’, says ex-anti-slavery commissioner

The number of potential victims of modern slavery indicated in the care sector is expected to have risen again for 2023, a former anti-slavery commissioner has said.

Dame Sara Thornton said the issue is a “real concern” in the care sector, with some people who have come from abroad feeling “tied” to their jobs in the UK as they might face having to pay back money for visas which had been sponsored by their employer.

A report in October by Unseen, a charity which runs a helpline and works to support survivors of trafficking and modern slavery, said there were 712 potential victims of modern slavery indicated in the care sector in 2022.

Dame Sara (pictured) said information she got last week indicated the figure will be higher still for 2023.

She told the BBC Radio Four Today programme: “Looking at the data, the charity Unseen run a helpline for modern slavery and exploitation and they had potentially 63 victims in 2021.

“By 2022 that was over 700 and, talking to the charity last week, apparently the number will be higher again this year.

“So it’s a real concern.”

She said the workers have often “incurred substantial debts to get here” and then are “in effect without a voice” if they end up doing long hours in poor conditions.

“I’ve heard if they complain, then they’re threatened that their visa will be revoked,” she told Today.

“And while in principle you can switch employers with this visa, in practice the employer can claw back any costs and so it’s very unattractive.

“So people are kind of tied into these jobs and if the conditions are not good, they don’t feel that they can do anything to raise concerns.”

She said while such situations are “definitely exploitation”, it is a “matter of evidence and law” as to whether they hit the threshold needed under the Modern Slavery Act for a prosecution.

She added: “There is an argument in fact, there is a kind of a gap here that people are being exploited. They’re tied to their work, but it might not be hitting the threshold for prosecution under section one or section two of the Modern Slavery Act.”

Dame Sara’s comments came as a care provider said issues raised in a BBC Panorama programme will be “thoroughly investigated and action taken if and where appropriate”.

The programme sent an undercover reporter to take up a job as a care assistant at Addison Court, part of Prestwick Care, in the north east of England.

The BBC reported that care home staff from overseas had said they feel exploited and trapped, believing their contracts prevented them from leaving.

A spokesman at Prestwick Care said Addison Court and Prestwick Care had “delivered high levels of quality care to our residents in the North East over the last 37 years” and have a “proven track record in delivering high quality services”.

They added: “Immediately upon being approached by BBC Panorama, we contacted CQC (Care Quality Commission) and other stakeholders to notify them of this fact.

“The safety and welfare of all of our residents and staff is of paramount importance to us. All issues raised will be thoroughly investigated and action taken if and where appropriate.”

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