UK almost doubled health and care worker visas last year

FILE PHOTO: Rokewood Court Care Home in Kenley
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By Sarah Young and Sachin Ravikumar

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain almost doubled the number of visas given to foreign health and care workers last year, government data showed, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak over immigration ahead of an election expected later this year.

Trailing the opposition Labour party in the polls, Sunak has vowed to bring down immigration, a major concern for voters.

But data released on Thursday by the Home Office (interior ministry) was the latest set of statistics to show the scale of the challenge he faces.

Britain granted 337,240 work visas in 2023, 26% higher than in 2022, driven almost entirely by a 91% jump in health and care sector visas. Of the 146,477 visas in that sector, just over 60% were for workers in residential care homes and those providing care in people's own homes.

Many workers also brought dependants, with the health and care bracket accounting for 73% of the 279,131 visas given to the family members of workers.

The latest figures follow statistics in November showing annual net migration to the UK hit a record 745,000 in 2022.

As part of his effort to bring numbers down, Sunak's government tightened visa rules, introducing higher salary thresholds and curbs on care workers bringing in family members.

Businesses and trade unions have criticised those moves, as the care sector faces labour shortages.

VULNERABLE WORKERS

Britain began offering skilled worker visas to international care workers from February 2022, in an effort to fill vacancies of over 150,000, or about 10% of the sector, where demand from Britain's ageing population has been rising.

Charities have warned however that such a reliance on international staff increases the risk that they are brought into the country via gangs who exploit them by charging extra fees, overworking them, or making them work in other areas too.

Britain's Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority said in December it was conducting more than 30 investigations into labour exploitation in the care sector, including on potential modern slavery offences such as debt bondage.

Dora-Olivia Vicol, chief executive of Work Rights Centre, a London-based charity, said the government needed to address problems with poor pay to attract more domestic workers.

"With a record number of health and care visas issued in Q4 2023, we can clearly see a rapidly growing population of vulnerable migrant workers, in a sector which has already been identified as low-pay, low protection, and high-risk," Vicol said.

(This story has been corrected to change the year to 2023 from 2024 in paragraph 13)

(Reporting by Sarah Young and Sachin Ravikumar, Editing by William Maclean)