It’s sunnier in Dubai, the visa lasts longer in the US and the wages are better in Canada. Many foreign care workers had already been thinking of quitting Britain for similar jobs elsewhere before the home secretary announced on Monday that dependants of new applicants would no longer be welcome.
Experts say the move, effective from next spring, will only make England’s severe care staff shortage worse amid international competition for people willing to look after society’s most vulnerable on low pay.
And, sure enough, Annie, a care worker from Botswana who was one of the first to arrive last year under the scheme inviting foreign care staff and their families, is already filling in the forms to switch to Canada.
“I wouldn’t have come,” she said when asked about James Cleverly’s new ban on bringing dependants. “It will affect a lot of people. Some of us are already looking at going to Australia, Canada or America because of the living conditions here, the amount of money I am paid, the rent.”
Annie has been working 15-hour days in Wiltshire and Somerset caring for elderly people. She makes about £1,500 a month and spends about two-thirds of that on rent. She brought her husband and daughter with her – some of the 120,000 dependants who accompanied 100,000 care workers on the scheme in the year to September.
Announcing his crackdown on Monday, Cleverly said too many of these were “drawing on public services rather than helping grow the economy”. Annie’s husband is learning to drive so he can become a care worker too.
In East Anglia, Jonathan, a care worker from the Philippines who had brought his wife and nine-year-old daughter with him, said: “This will reduce numbers. The reason overseas workers come here is the opportunity to bring your family and I don’t want to live separately from my family. Most of us have the same objective: to bring our families here.”
He is trained in complex care needs but earns just £11 an hour, which he described as “shockingly low”. Coming without family was unappealing he said, not least because “the weather in this country is depressing”.
“If you go to Saudi, Dubai or Hong Kong it’s sunny, so the psychological impact [of being away from family] is less,” he said.
“I don’t know if I could manage to live without my family here for five years. There are so many illegal immigrants here, they should be dealing with them, not with us care workers who are significantly contributing to the economy. I don’t know what they are trying to prove.”
When his wife joined him in the UK, she did not sit around drawing on public services either. She became a care worker too.
Karolina Gerlich, the chief executive of the Care Workers Charity, said of the ban: “It’s incredibly hard. And it perceives care workers as tools of delivering care and not as people with lives and families.”
She said that by banning family members, the government was in effect signalling that “we don’t want [foreign care workers] to come but we’re not going say it out loud”.
She said it would drive foreign workers who still want to come to the UK towards the NHS, where visas including dependants will still be available. “It will have a negative effect on a sector that is already struggling,” she said. One in 10 care posts in England are vacant.
Underlying the concern at the government’s move is a lack of progress in boosting local recruitment for social care.
Vic Rayner, the chief executive of the National Care Forum, which represents independent care home operators, said the migration advisory committee had always stressed that regardless of bringing in migrant staff, “to properly address shortages in the care workforce it was essential to enhance the pay, terms and conditions”.
She said: “The government must not put at risk the ability of international care workers to become valuable team members, with vital skills and expertise that are fundamental to the delivery of care.
“What is needed is a balance between international workers coming into the UK, recruited through ethical practices, and better pay, terms and conditions for all care workers, fully funded by the state.”
Last month the National Audit Office said progress on reform of the social care workforce had been slow.