Engage: Migrant care workers to be displaced by immigration rules and by robots

Although seemingly a distant memory amid the coronavirus pandemic, the UK’s post-Brexit immigration vision continues at speed with only a handful of months left to enjoy Free Movement across the continent. This is because as of 31 December 2020, EU entrants will be subjected to the same immigration rules as their non-EU counterparts, meaning they will need higher-paid salaries and job sponsorships to find a job in the UK.

Yet while most businesses and industries express concern for their workforces once Freedom of Movement ends, one sector set to suffer at the system’s newly proposed steep thresholds is the care industry. However, rather than create a Care Worker Visa or streamlined visa route alternative, the Home Office has announced plans to invest in automation and artificial intelligence instead, irrespective of the sector’s current 122,000-vacancy rate.

For staff wishing to obtain a Work Visa to the UK as of 2021, migrant workers must earn a total of 70 points. The initial 50 points are compiled mostly around the UK employer: the company must provide a job offer that is at a suitable skill level and fulfil a sponsor licence application to legally recruit from overseas. Eligible migrant staff must then be able to demonstrate that they have adequate English speaking skills.The remaining 20 points are then divided between a desirable salary level (£23,040 – £25,599) and having a PhD.

For care workers, such requirements equate to unattainable hurdles with most earning an average salary of £16,000 while the absence of PhD qualifications prohibits carers from earning those crucial last points. The only glimmer of hope the sector could possibly rely on would be if care workers were added to the UK’s restrictive Shortage Occupation List (SOL) – a resource that advertises UK jobs that is currently lacking in homegrown labour. However, even then, carers would need to earn £20,480 to be able to apply through this unique route.

What’s more, former Prime Minister Theresa May’s singular attempt to save the sector with a 12-Month Temporary Visa has since been scrapped by the current government. This route would have allowed anyone outside of the normal points-based visa categories to come and work in the UK for up to a year. Although the visa had strict time limitations and potential manoeuvre for unscrupulous employers to exploit workers, it at least indiscriminately paved the way for anyone, including care workers, to fill a position in Britain.

Still, it now appears that the UK is dangerously hurtling towards an immigration system that will evaporate access to all EU talent pools and halt recruitment drives in the UK care sector. And if the pressing times of coronavirus have taught us anything, it’s that we need all the help and assistance we can get.

Such exclusionary immigraton measures will inevitably have major implications for an industry that is already crumbling under the pressure of staff shortages and severe underfunding. Consequentially, international recruitment provides a fundamental safety net, with the sector employing a quarter of a million people from outside the UK. In just London alone, 40% of social care workers originate from overseas. Yet the Brexit fall-out coupled with a quarter of staff on zero-hour contracts and where minimum wage continues to be feebly awarded to those toiling long and exhausting hours has resulted in an estimated 1,100 people leaving their job every day according to The Health Foundation. The Government then harking that care work is deemed an ‘unskilled’ profession in their eyes has only rubbed salt in the sector’s deep and cumbersome wounds.

The UK stands on the precipice of an ever-increasing ageing population too, resulting in a proportional increase in the demand for carers. Estimations have since concluded that social care jobs will need to rise by 36% by 2035 to bolster an industry that currently contributes £40.5 billion to the economy. Without large injections of cash and staff, more care homes face closures which in turn has a knock-on effect to the NHS which is currently inundated with a plethora of complications and struggles of its own.

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) attributes the “failure to offer competitive terms and conditions” as the heart of the problem, however, clearly a combative approach of ramped up government funding and a realistic immigration plan is desperately needed to attend to the sector’s urgent workforce crisis.

Yet the Home Office remains indifferent to the care sector’s inevitable suffering. Systemic disregard for vital care workers, dubbed ‘low-skilled’, has resulted in obnoxious and ineffective suggestions from ministers to tackle social care demands. Social Care Minister Helen Whately has drastically over-simplified the crisis by saying social care employers should just ‘redouble’ their efforts to recruit UK workers whilst Home Secretary Priti Patel suggested that the 8.45 million economically active people in the UK will compensate for immigration changes. Yet, 50% of this number are either students, have a long-term sickness or are already home carers for loved ones.

In an even more bizarre turn for the worse, the government has swayed from providing funding support for its care worker citizens by instead putting £34 million aside to invest in social care robots. Powerful technology companies such as Samsung have argued that ‘artificial humans’ could be the answer to the shortage of migrant carers, providing ‘companionship’ as a bid to help loneliness. In a scarily modern society where human welfare is overshadowed by technology, the government’s plan has been labelled as ‘ridiculous’ and clearly demonstrates a disturbing level of inhumanity in securing anti-immigration measures at the expense of supporting the old and disabled.

One unexplored avenue that the Government could invest in instead would be to create a Social Care Worker Visa. Similar to that of the NHS Visa and Agricultural Seasonal Scheme that are tailored specifically to recruit staff from overseas in these sectors, the Social Care Worker Visa could overcome the key hurdles that carers currently trip up on in the immigration rulebook. It would prevent invaluable migrant care workers from falling through the cracks of the system.

Of course, rather than investing money into large corporations looking to exploit the wellbeing of vulnerable individuals, the Government could utilise its ‘care robot’ initiative by raising care workers salaries to meet the demands of the Tier 2 Visa instead. Either way, without serious reevaluation into the future survival of the sector that has come to show its significance in this dire time of crisis, severe staff shortages and underfunding will only continue and will see the industry spiral into the abyss. The consequence, tragically, will pass on to our elderly and vulnerable loved ones.

About the Author

This article has been written by Maddie Grounds, a correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of UK and Ireland immigration lawyers that is currently offering free legal advice to all NHS staff amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Picture (c) Rick Findler / PA Wire.