Startling Escalation: Modern Slavery Reports Soar within the UK Care Industry

Startling Escalation: Modern Slavery Reports Soar within the UK Care Industry

In the past month, two prominent bodies monitoring the cases of modern slavery in the social care workforce have come forward to reveal the drastic increase in numbers in the past year. The first being the BBC’s File on 4, which obtained its evidence from the government-approved anti-slavery helpline, run by a charity called Unseen. The second is data released by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) which assesses the number of referrals made by the organisation over cases of slavery among the social an healthcare workforce in England. 


The struggles facing the nation’s National Healthcare Services (NHS) predates the outbreak of COVID-19. Notoriously underfunded and under-resourced, an analysis conducted by the Labour Party in 2020 revealed that NHS staff were working in excess of 1.1 million hours of unpaid overtime every week before the global pandemic. It is undeniable that the sector on the whole was stretched beyond its limits during the pandemic, but in its aftermath existing and new staff continue to suffer the consequences of the nation’s fragmented system.


The BBC’s File on 4 revealed that the number of modern slavery cases within the UK care industry has doubled in comparison to last year’s findings, with 109 potential victims having been exploited for either personal or financial gain between the months of January and March. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) was told that there were 17 ongoing investigations into businesses within the care sector, assessing in excess of 300 pieces of intelligence.


Unseen states that with the government easing the process for overseas social care staff to work in the UK post-Brexit, and the augmentation of the supply chain, there is an increased chance of exploitation. As per BBC’s report, in the year to March, the government had issued 102,000 visas for skilled workers, health and care workers, which is an increase of 171% from the previous year.


The report carried out an interview with a victim of modern slavery, who was forced to work 20-hour days earning as little as £2 per hour, forcing her, her mother, and children onto the streets after a series of false promises. ‘Terri’, was recruited by an agency who offered work in the UK as a domiciliary carer, with the potential to earn up to £29,000 per annum. As a survivor of domestic abuse, Terri took a leap and moved to England with her children and mother, with the intention of securing financial and domestic stability for her family.


After receiving her wages, which were well below the hourly National Living Wage of £10.42, and discussing the matter with her employer, her visa and employment were threatened. According to Ian Waterfield, Head of Enforcement at the government-sponsored GLAA, the care company where Terri was employed is presently under investigation by another government department concerning the UK's skilled worker visa scheme. He further notes that the care industry has experienced a significant shift in attention, transitioning from being largely ignored to becoming a "top priority" in the last 18 months.


Similar to the BBC’s findings, the CQC shared data which revealed a significant rise in the number of referrals it has made surrounding potential modern slavery in social care settings, which had increased from 7 in 2021, to 30 in 2022. In 2023’s first quarter, the CQC had already made 6 referrals. This data is noteworthy in comparison to those prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, whereby in 2018 there were a total of 4 potential cases referred, and a total of 7 in 2019.


"Victims of modern slavery are extremely vulnerable," says Sara Thornton, the former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.


Thorton also expressed her concerns surrounding the newly passed Illegal Migration Bill, making it harder to support the many vulnerable victims in the care sector due to the looming threat of deportation:


“They will be in terror of the people who’ve trafficked or enslaved them, who will tell them there’s no point going to the police or the local authority or a charity because they won’t support you.”


Building upon Thorton's concerns, impACT highlights the critical significance of effectively regulating the social care sector. This oversight becomes imperative to safeguard skilled workers arriving in the UK to bolster the industry, ensuring they are not vulnerable to falling victim to modern slavery. In addition, it is crucial for the UK government to establish a program that enhances the availability of support services for those arriving from abroad, especially in light of the implementation of the Illegal Migration Bill. The focus should be on providing protection to these individuals instead of subjecting them to the threat of deportation.



The Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline can be reached on 08000 121 700. The helpline is free, open 24/7, and provides support and information to the NHS and members of the public.


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