What do the government’s recent immigration changes mean for migrant workers facing exploitation?

By Adis Sehic - 24 January 2024

On 4 December 2023, the Home Secretary James Cleverly announced a raft of major changes to the UK’s immigration system. The proposed overhaul will affect many individuals on various immigration routes and, somewhat unexpectedly, will also have a direct impact on British nationals given changes being proposed to family visas. 

The government’s proposals have been met with much debate, anger and even genuine surprise across the political divide, forcing u-turns and clarifications from the Home Office. Less focus, however, has been placed on what these announcements mean for the exploitation of migrant workers. In this blog post, we dig deeper to examine what, if any, impact the government’s proposals may have on the efforts to tackle the growing reports of abuse affecting migrant workers in different parts of the UK’s economy.


What do the immigration changes mean in practice?

Now that the dust has settled on the government’s announcements, the Home Office has released further details to substantiate the proposed changes. At the time of writing, the government’s overhaul can be broadly summarised as the following:

  • Overseas care workers will now be prevented from bringing dependant family members to the UK. These measures will not apply retrospectively, so care workers and senior care workers on the Health and Care visa route and their dependants will be able to remain and extend their leave, as well as apply for settlement. Existing care workers and senior care workers on the route who have not yet brought dependants into the UK will be allowed to do so during their visa. 
  • Care firms in England will only be able to sponsor workers moving forward if they are carrying out activities that are regulated by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). The Home Office has said that this change is being implemented ‘as soon as possible’.
  • The earnings threshold under the Skilled Worker route will increase to £38,700 from Spring 2024. Those arriving on the Health and Care visa route will be exempted from the increase. Education workers on national pay scales will also be exempted. The change will not be applied retrospectively.
  • The Shortage Occupation List will be replaced by a new ‘immigration salary list’ containing a shorter list of occupations following consultation with the Migration Advisory Committee. The 20% salary discount for shortage occupations will end.
  • The minimum income requirement for family visas will also increase to £38,700. The increase will be incremental - first, a rise to £29,000 in Spring 2024, and then a rise to £34,500 (no approximate date has yet been given for this particular rise). Finally, the rise to £38,700 will be implemented by Spring 2025. The increase will not be applied retrospectively.
  • The Migration Advisory Committee has been asked to review the Graduate route to ‘prevent abuse, protect the integrity and quality of UK higher education and ensure it works in the best interests of the UK.’


A ban on dependants will leave more carers vulnerable to destitution

Without a dependant's income (along with the emotional support and stability that family members provide) to lean on when times get tough, we are concerned that this change will only result in more migrant workers either acquiescing to exploitative conditions at work, or being plunged into destitution.

For example, our Service Provision team have experienced first-hand how relying on dependants and their ability to earn an income while in the UK has allowed care workers who were subjected to exploitation to avoid absolute destitution. This is in part because people on the Health and Care visa route generally have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), and cannot rely on public funds as a way to support themselves when exiting an exploitative workplace. The situation is compounded if the affected individual has also incurred significant debts as a result of being defrauded into paying illegal recruitment fees when initially applying for their visa. Many of our clients have experienced this. Therefore, the government’s proposal risks cutting a very significant lifeline for exploited workers.

The government has estimated that only 25% of dependants work when they come to the UK, and that this ‘means a significant number are drawing on public services rather than helping to grow the economy’. However, it is important to state that dependants too are generally subjected to the NRPF condition, meaning they cannot readily access public funds. Similarly, public services should by definition be ‘public’ - dependants of migrants should not be stigmatised or shamed for accessing vital services simply because they are subject to immigration control.  

Regulation by the Care Quality Commission is not itself sufficient to prevent harm to workers

We welcome the government’s announcement that care firms will have to be regulated by the CQC to sponsor migrant workers in the future, but this is subject to some important caveats and considerations.

Firstly, it is perplexing that this requirement wasn’t already in place when the government launched the Health and Care visa in 2020. This speaks to the lack of a preventative approach by the government in the context of tackling exploitation generally. In future, the government would do well to embed similar safeguards in its policy design and implementation from the outset, rather than do so reactively once issues have already begun to materialise.

Secondly, merely being regulated by the CQC is not by itself a sufficient barrier to prevent the exploitation of migrant care workers. Unfortunately, there were no specific minimum standards or conditions attached to this proposal. For example, the government’s announcement made no reference to care homes being required to have a minimum CQC inspection rating of ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding, nor did it require care homes to have been inspected within a certain period (or at all) before the acquisition of a sponsor licence (to prevent previous ratings from being outdated). 

Similarly, the Home Office’s guidance for sponsors has not been updated with specific wording to emphasise further the responsibilities that prospective sponsors in the care context have towards sponsored workers, including with nods to guidance issued by other relevant departments e.g. Department for Health and Social Care. Complementary measures of this kind would have provided greater protection for migrant workers and helped to ensure that the Home Office doesn’t provide licences to rogue care providers.

Thirdly, although the CQC is not formally designated as a labour inspectorate, this change will no doubt place greater pressure on the CQC to stamp out exploitation in workplaces regulated by it. But, as our recent report has identified, the UK’s labour market enforcement ecosystem is already fragmented and the allocation of responsibility for tackling instances of exploitation across different sectors and issue areas can sometimes be hazy at best. 

Capacity is an issue too. James Bullion, Chief Inspector of Adult Social Care and Integrated Care at the CQC, recently told the Health and Social Care Committee that if this change led to increased registrations, the CQC would raise concerns about the resource impact that this would have. Introducing another body into the enforcement mix, rather than investing in and consolidating the UK’s main labour enforcement agencies into a Single Enforcement Body, may make it more difficult for workers seeking to report mistreatment.


Scrapping the 20% salary discount 

We welcome the government’s announcement to remove the 20% salary discount for occupations featured on the Shortage Occupation List. As the Migration Advisory Committee identified in its review of the List in 2023:

Low-wage employment is where the most serious exploitation of workers occurs. We know that the risk of exploitation is particularly significant for migrants. Using the SOL [Shortage Occupation List] to make it easier to recruit low-wage workers increases the risk of this exploitation.’

However, scrapping the salary discount alone will not end the practice of underpayment that many migrant workers in the UK continue to face, particularly in sectors like agriculture, health and social care and more. For example, our Service Provision team has previously identified that individuals arriving in the UK on a Health and Care visa were being subjected to onerous repayment clauses that did not meet the parameters established by the Code of Practice for the international recruitment of health and social care personnel in England, leading to sizeable and illicit deductions from monthly pay. A greater emphasis on enforcing established rules and guidance in the areas of ethical recruitment, contractual relations, National Minimum Wage and correct pay generally is desperately required so that exploitative practices of this kind do not run amok.


Review of the Graduate visa route

A review of the Graduate route seems to be an extension of the government’s ongoing focus on international students. Last year it was announced that international students would no longer be able to bring family dependants to the UK, except those on postgraduate research courses and courses with government-funded scholarships. The government’s focus on preventing ‘abuse’ in this context seems to implicate migrant students in ‘gaming’ the immigration rules, yet does little to acknowledge the capacity for students to be exploited in the workplace when the system is ‘gamed’ by rogue sponsors.

For example, in May 2023, the Chief Executive of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority acknowledged that some international students were being recruited into the care sector and being forced to work longer than the 20 hours a week permitted by the conditions of their visa. This same fact was being used by sponsors against the students to prevent them from reporting squalid conditions and incorrect pay, because doing so would almost certainly result in negative repercussions for their immigration status. 

But circumstances of this kind are not isolated incidents in particular visa categories like the Graduate route. Our recent report found that the system of sponsorship that is central to the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system places too much power in the hands of sponsors, forcing workers to choose between seeking justice or retaining their immigration status under duress. This is the ‘abuse’ that requires the Government’s full attention, but it remains to be seen whether it will be prioritised in the review of the Graduate route or any other immigration routes moving forward.


Concluding remarks 

The government’s recent announcements have made some important first steps in recognising the factors that are driving and contributing to migrant worker exploitation in the UK (e.g. scrapping the 20% salary discount). However, the proposals outlined are not nearly enough, in both detail and number, to tackle the issues facing migrant workers head-on. These are by now systemic, and require a serious redesign of the UK’s immigration, labour enforcement and employment justice landscapes. 

Taken together as a package of reform, it is clear that tackling migrant worker exploitation is not a current priority for this government, or is at least subservient to other policy goals, not least in the field of immigration. However, as we note in our recent report, there is a public good in preventing all exploitation and enforcing employment rights, because there is a public good in a decent and functioning labour market. This is and should be an important and distinct policy aim of any administration - ministers would do well to remember this.

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