There has been an increase in media coverage on modern slavery and human trafficking in the care sector in recent months, both of which are criminal offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (‘the Act’). The CQC’s recent State of Care report 2022/23 further highlights concerns in this area. In the report the CQC has noted a “growing trend of unethical international recruitment practices”. The report confirms that the number of referrals the CQC made in 2022/23 for concerns regarding modern slavery, labour exploitation and international visas (37 referrals) is more than 4 times the number made in 2021/22.
There are a number of factors present which increase the risk of care worker exploitation in the UK adult care sector. For example, an ageing population which has increased demand for services, significant labour shortages, high staff turnover and the continuing implications of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Given ongoing recruitment challenges in the sector, many providers welcomed the Government’s decision to expand the Shortage Occupation List in February 2022 to include social care worker, care assistant and home care worker roles. Since then there has been a rapid rise in the number of applications which now account for two in five of all skilled work visas. However, this has also unfortunately increased the risk of unscrupulous recruitment agencies and care companies taking advantage of vulnerable care workers.
In light of the above, it is not surprising that the issue is clear on the CQC’s radar and other public bodies are taking action to tackle the issue. For example, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (‘GLAA’) is giving the sector high priority and is carrying out multiple investigations into care agencies operating illegally.
What does this mean for providers?
One of the concerns highlighted in the CQC’s State of Care report is that services, either knowingly or unknowingly, become involved in modern slavery or human trafficking. It refers to feedback received through the CQC’s ‘Give feedback on care’ service and states that it appears a small number of providers are exploiting victims of modern slavery, and the wider system, through:
- Financial abuse including: low pay, accommodation, transport or food that is tied to the job; excessive sponsorship fees, having to pay for their own registration or training, long working hours, lack of breaks and holidays, and tax avoidance
- Physical, sexual and psychological abuse
- Racial and religious discrimination
- Threats and blackmail, often using the person’s sponsorship or visa status as leverage to exploit and degrade them.
The CQC’s statement on modern slavery and human trafficking was most recently updated by the board in December 2022. It states that modern slavery and human trafficking is incompatible with its values, including being caring and acting with integrity. The CQC confirms that all health and care services have a role to play in supporting victims of modern slavery and human trafficking and the CQC routinely checks that services have appropriate systems and processes in place to identify abuse and safeguard people from harm. Victims could be either staff working in a service or people using a service. If the CQC is concerned that an organisation it regulates is engaged in modern slavery, it can make safeguarding referrals and will inform the appropriate agencies responsible for taking enforcement action under the Act in line with its duty to report criminal activity.
In order to safeguard their services from becoming involved in modern slavery or human trafficking, providers should ensure they have clear guidance, policies and training in place highlighting potential risk factors to assist in identifying abuse and safeguarding individuals. Given the higher risk of exploitation of workers outsourced from agencies, providers who engage agencies should ensure they have policies in place to ensure these relationships are managed in a way that reduces any potential risks. For example, they could ensure they only use specific reputable employment agencies to source staff and always seek specific information from an agency before accepting employees from it.
It should additionally be noted that provider organisations with an annual turnover of £36million or more are required by the Act to prepare a modern slavery statement for each financial year (see section 54 of the Act). Among other things, the statement should set out the steps they have taken during the year to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place in its supply chains and own business.
It is clear that the risks of modern slavery and human trafficking within the care sector have increased exponentially over the past year and are likely to remain. Providers must take appropriate action to protect themselves from unwittingly becoming embroiled in the commitment of such crimes.