A spotlight on social care workers – the latest challenges facing the sector - Part 1

Published 16/04/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

With new visa restrictions for migrant care workers now in force, this two part series shines a spotlight on its likely impact on a workforce already in crisis, and the latest issues facing the sector.

This first article focuses on the visa changes and reactions to them, while the second looks at concerns about modern slavery and exploitation, and what we know about the fragility of the Welsh care workforce.

Care workers from overseas are no longer allowed to bring immediate family

As of 11 March 2024, newly arriving migrant care workers are no longer permitted to bring any dependants (partners and children) on their work visa, under UK Government plans aiming to cut net migration. According to the UK Government, “a disproportionate 120,000 dependants accompanied 100,000 workers on the route last year”.

The minimum income normally required for a migrant’s spouse/partner to live with them in the UK (via visa sponsorship) has also risen from £18,600 per year to £29,000 from 11 April 2024 (and will rise further to around £38,700 in 2025). This means this route is ruled out for the majority of migrant care workers (the average care worker salary in the UK is around £22,629pa).

Background to visa changes

It's around two years since skilled worker visas were opened up to overseas care workers to tackle record staff shortages in the UK.

Immigration is a reserved matter for the UK Government, who asked the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) in July 2021 to investigate the impact of ending freedom of movement on the care sector.

Its interim conclusions, published in December 2021, were that the end of EU free movement had contributed to a “significant worsening” in the workforce situation. It recommended care workers be immediately made eligible for the Health and Care visa and placed on the then shortage occupation list (along with other recommendations about improving pay, terms and conditions).

The UK Government accepted the interim recommendation and social care workers became eligible for work visas from 15 February 2022.

The Home Office granted 60,000 visas to care workers between June 2022 and June 2023 across the UK. Another 18,000 went to senior care workers. On average, each worker on a Health and Care visa brought one immediate family member on a ‘dependant’ visa.

Social care accounted for 65% of Health and Care visas issued (the category also caters for doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers). Over one third (37%) of all long-term work visas issued over that period went to care workers.

Reaction to the new visa restrictions

Overseas care staff have been described as a “lifeline for many care providers”. The changes have provoked a concerned response from the health and social care sectors, with worries that the move will deepen the existing social care workforce crisis with greater staffing shortages.

Care England (representing independent care providers) said “immigration is saving the social care sector” and the new restrictions will make it harder for care providers to recruit foreign workers.

The Care Providers Alliance said “the [UK] government is effectively severing the lifeline of international recruitment. This is currently the only option we have to maintain and increase workforce numbers, as recruitment in the UK remains challenging”.

The Cavendish Coalition (representing a large number of health and care organisations) said it is “profoundly concerned” that the changes to the Health and Care Visa “risk taking us a seismic step backwards”, and:

To assume therefore that care workers would work in the UK without their dependants will be disastrous to our services and make the UK a less attractive place for much needed social care staff weighing up where they might choose to work.

UNISON and the National Care Forum describe the new visa rules as “catastrophic”. They warn that “this major change in policy will cause ‘unnecessary concern’ to those who need vital support and their families, as well as ‘huge costs to organisations providing care”. They went on to say:

The [UK] government has produced no evidence to support its claim that migrant workers without dependents will still come to the UK. If ministers are wrong, thousands of people will be unable to access the social care they desperately need.

Is social care being unfairly targeted?

The UK Government says the move is one of the key measures it is taking to cut net migration. It says “our offer to care workers is extremely competitive internationally”, and “we are not capping carer numbers- we are just restricting which workers can bring dependants”.

But the restrictions apply to care workers and senior care workers only, and not to any other occupations under the Health and Care visa, leading to accusations of “singling out” social care workers and treating them unfairly. Care England (representing independent care providers) stated:

If this new policy to stop Social Care workers from bringing dependents to the UK is the best way to streamline how we recruit overseas staff, why has the same set of measures not been applied to the NHS?

The Cavendish Coalition said with the NHS being exempt from the visa changes, there’s a danger that it will “perversely increase competition between social care and health on international recruitment, at a time when we need both sectors to be working ever more closely, and not apart”.

The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s recent report highlights the care sector’s concerns that recruitment difficulties will be made worse by the visa restrictions. The Committee called on the UK Government to provide more information about the effect of these changes.

The Welsh Government says it supports employing international workers in the social care sector and has previously called for measures to further facilitate recruitment from overseas.

Tomorrow’s article looks at what we know about workforce numbers in Wales, and growing concerns about exploitation of migrant care workers.

Article by Amy Clifton and Claire Thomas, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament