Acare home is raided by the Border Agency. Staff are removed as they have no identity documents and are working long hours in poor conditions. The home, it turns out, is being used as a conduit for trafficking women into the UK.
This is a true story, told recently by a social care professional to Gary Craig, emeritus professor of social justice at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at Hull University. The agency that supplied the workers to the care home, he was told, has not been properly investigated by the authorities.
Craig has heard a number of similar accounts from social care professionals that could indicate foreign nationals working in the sector – in both residential care homes and private residences – might be victims of exploitation, forced labour and modern slavery.
Another example related to a large care home provider. During a routine inspection, concerns were raised about the treatment of care staff who lived on the premises. Some were registered nurses sponsored to come to the UK by the care home as their employer. The care workers felt unable to talk about working practices in the home until they were guaranteed anonymity. The conditions, Craig was informed, amounted to forced labour. In this case, the local authority cut ties with the provider, but the business still operates as a private provider.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that around 21 million people around the world – including 5.5 million children – are in slavery. Modern slavery can include being forced unwillingly into labour, bonded labour where people are compelled to work to pay off debts they may have unwittingly incurred, and human trafficking, where people are recruited and transported within and between countries and then exploited through violence, threats or coercion.
Although the situation of foreign care workers has received nothing like the level of scrutiny of food production, Craig believes the adult social care sector holds significant dangers. The vulnerability of workers employed in settings that may be out of sight is a clear red flag when it comes to the potential for exploitation.
“The risks are about isolation, lack of frequent and effective regulation, and lack of staff training,” he explains. “Levels of exploitation of employees in the social care sector are already very high, and union organisation is very weak.”
There is also intense pressure on care home providers, who are struggling with a recruitment crisis. “You’re managing a care home and desperately need people to work in conditions that are challenging,” Craig suggests. “It’s Friday night, you’re desperate and an agency pops up and says, ‘I can supply labour’.” The temptation to cut corners, he says, is obvious.
“It is low-skilled, low-paid work,” notes Justine Currell, executive director of anti-slavery charity Unseen. This means the barriers to employment are low for vulnerable foreign workers who may find themselves coerced or threatened into handing over their wages to a trafficker. The Modern Slavery Helpline has received calls from individuals worried about the welfare of their care workers, as well as inquiries from concerned social work professionals who sense that something may not be quite right with a set-up they have observed.
The social care regulator, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), says it has not come across any evidence to date that any registered adult social care provider in England is illegally transporting people into the country for the purposes of forced labour.
The office of Shaun Sawyer, chief constable of Devon and Cornwall and the national police lead on modern slavery, also says that current police intelligence is not coming across cases of this kind. “While the team have no doubt that isolated incidents do occur, there is a lack of evidence to suggest that this is one of the primary arenas for exploitation nationally at present,” said a spokesperson.
This, says Craig, is to miss the point. “It’s a very familiar tale: people don’t believe that anything exists until they start looking. And then it comes out.” The police, he says, suffer from a lack of training: it was only last year that forces were required to insert a line on modern slavery into their categorisation of crimes.
Craig believes there is enough evidence of organised exploitation in the sector to justify a formal investigation. When the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) widens later this year to cover exploitation across the whole of the UK labour market, he is urging it to mount an inquiry.
Two years on from the Modern Slavery Act 2015, Craig says: “More is going to come out. In social care, it’s going to be more hidden, and very difficult [to uncover], but that’s what this business is about. The GLA claim they want to run an evidence-led organisation, but if you don’t follow your hunches, you won’t get your evidence.”
It is sometimes difficult for concerned professionals to speak out when they’re unsure about quite what it is that they’re seeing. It’s hard to be sure that something is wrong, and people may not know who to tell.
Andrea Sutcliffe, the CQC’s chief inspector of adult social care, is clear. “Any form of exploitation is an abuse of a person’s basic rights but it may be hidden, which is why it is so important for anyone who is concerned to speak out so it can be stopped.”
It is also, says Sutcliffe, the responsibility of those in charge of running care services to live up to their legal responsibilities and carry out robust recruitment and identity checks on staff. “Should my inspection teams find that this is not happening, we will always take action that holds providers to account.”
Craig advises that anyone with concerns that a worker in an adult social care setting is being subjected to coercion, threat or forced labour should in the first instance consider contacting a charity specialising in these issues.
“If I had anxieties about what was going on in a care home, and whether management was colluding with trafficking in any way, I would talk to a local charity first of all – charities have often taken the lead in bringing this to the public domain – and ask them to investigate. Or possibly even report it to the CQC inspector and ask for anonymity. Then follow it up with an MP if nothing happens. They will have to respond.”
Many people who have been trafficked, Craig warns, will have little trust in the police and may be so frightened that they won’t cooperate. “If you involve the police you need to be sure they are going to take it seriously,” he says. “That would only be my second line of attack. You don’t want a policeman going in who doesn’t know what he’s looking for.”
Gary Craig is asking anyone with concerns about possible instances of modern slavery and trafficking in adult social care to contact him in relation to a research project on forced labour.