UK Panel Says Migration Earnings Rules Risk Exploitation of Care Workers

(Bloomberg) -- Changes to the UK’s migrant worker rules which allow public health-care staff into the country on a lower salary than private sector employees pose “an increased risk of exploitation” for care workers, according to a panel that advises the government.

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The changes announced by Home Secretary James Cleverly in December created a “widening divide” between the public and private sector, according to a report on Friday from the Migration Advisory Committee, a group of independent economists and researchers who guide the government on migration policy.

The changes to the system, which will mean most skilled foreign workers will have to earn at least £38,700 ($49,100) in order to gain a UK visa, were designed to bring down the number of immigrants entering the country under government-approved routes. Net migration hit a record last year, and with an election expected later in the year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is coming under increasing pressure from the right wing of his party to bring it down.

But with the National Health Service exempted from the new earnings threshold, the MAC said the government “appears to be exempting itself from any salary thresholds which would require an increase in pay for publicly funded workers.”

“This widening divide poses an increased risk of exploitation for lower-paid occupations, such as care workers, as the gap between salary thresholds for private and publicly funded occupations becomes larger,” the MAC said in a report published Friday. It urged the government to “consider this impact of the rule changes.”

While most private sector employers must pay the UK’s median wage of £38,700 in order to bring in a skilled migrant worker, the NHS will only have to pay a general threshold of £29,000 — the 25th percentile of UK salaries. For health-care workers on the new Immigration Salary List — a selection of jobs where shortages are acute — that threshold will be even lower, at £23,200.

The Home Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The MAC’s report was the result of a government request to carry out a “rapid review” of the new salary list. Unlike its predecessor, the Shortage Occupations List, it will not allow employers to bring in workers on a salary at a 20% discount to the “going rate” in that industry.

Instead, workers in those roles where people are most desperately needed will have to be paid either £30,960 or the median pay in their industry, whichever is higher.

The MAC’s list of roles which should be included on the new salary list covers just 8% of roles eligible for the broader “skilled worker” visa, as opposed to 30% previously. They include laboratory technicians, bricklayers and masons, care workers and animal care workers such as “stud hands” and “work riders.”

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