‘One hell to another’: Thousands of care workers risk deportation after employers breach rules

When Zainab Contractor came from India to the UK, she was hoping to secure a better future for her son. Instead she has been scammed out of thousands of pounds, denied the job she was promised and given 60 days to find a new visa sponsor or leave the country.

She and her brother Ismail had been given care worker visas by the UK government. The company offering them employment, 24/7 Flex Care, had promised full-time jobs, five years’ visa sponsorship, reimbursement for flight costs, a month’s free accommodation and a one-off payment of £500 each.

First, though, they had to pay money up front. So, after borrowing from family members, they handed over a combined total of £18,000 to a third-party recruiter.

But when they arrived in the UK, they say they were given no accommodation, no money for their flights and no work. The only money either of them ever received from 24/7 Flex Care was £500, paid to Ismail after he went to the offices to complain.

The family eventually found themselves in a shared house where Zainab and her husband stay in a room with their toddler, and Ismail in another with a stranger.

Then, in April, they both received letters from the Home Office saying the company had lost its licence to sponsor overseas care workers – and as a result they have until mid-June to secure a new visa or else return to India.

“[They are] taking money from us and not even giving work,” said Ismail. “It’s not fair.” He supports three younger siblings and his parents in India, and quit his job as an investor service analyst to come to the UK.

“We are being thrown out [of the UK] without being heard.”

Between them, they have applied to about 300 care providers to try to find a new employer, but without success. Zainab said that many of the companies she called were not sponsoring workers. Recruiters that did offer her a job have asked for upwards of £10,000 in recruitment fees.

“We don’t know how we will survive,” she said.

Zainab and Ismail are among the thousands of care workers left without jobs and at risk of deportation Richard Saker/The Observer

Thousands left in limbo

Zainab and Ismail are not alone. They are among the thousands of migrant care workers who have faced the possibility of losing their visas after their employer has had its sponsorship licence revoked.

Data obtained via freedom of information requests shows that 122 companies had their licences revoked in 2022 and 2023. This resulted in nearly 3,000 care workers having their sponsorship cancelled, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and the Observer can reveal. The Home Office did not respond when asked how many of these people have had to leave the UK.

An employer’s licence is revoked because the company has broken the rules. But consequences fall on the workers: their certificate of sponsorship is cancelled and they are sent a letter by the Home Office saying they have 60 days to find another eligible employer or else leave the country.

This means that the thousands of pounds they might have spent getting to the UK is also lost. And failure to leave can result in the worker being prosecuted or deported.

The Home Office told TBIJ it was working with the care sector to set up ways to help care workers find alternative jobs if their sponsor has had their licence removed.

Katherine*, 32, received her letter in March. She had left her job as a teacher in Nigeria to become a care worker in the UK. She and her husband sold their land and car dealership business to cover relocation costs.

But when they arrived, Katherine was not given the work she had been promised by the company sponsoring her, S&K Care 24. They went to the business park where it was based only to find a sign saying its offices had moved, with no mention of a new address.

“[The manager] was not taking my calls. I sent him several Whatsapp texts and he… would not reply,” Katherine said. “We did not know what to think and we did not know what to do. We were frustrated and confused.”

Other tenants of the business park said that the office had been mostly empty. “They set up an office for one day and were never seen again,” said one tenant. He said people would show up looking for the company on a daily basis, saying they had received no work.

Kay Mayo, registered manager of S&K Care 24, admitted to TBIJ that no care worker sponsored by her company had been given any work because it had not managed to secure care provision contracts with local authorities.

As a result of this, and because the company was acting as a recruitment agency, the Home Office subsequently revoked its sponsor licence, she said. She denied the office had been empty, and said she had been asked by the landlord to leave.

Katherine did not end up getting a single day’s work from S&K Care 24. She now has a week left to find a new sponsor or lose her visa.

When she came to the UK, she was 27 weeks pregnant – something her employer was made aware of – and she has since undergone an emergency caesarean section, which she believes was down to the stress and lack of food.

After the procedure, the Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust sent her a bill for nearly £11,000, despite migrant care workers being entitled to free NHS treatment. After being contacted by TBIJ, the trust said the charge had been made in error and apologised for the distress caused.

“My experience in this country has been from one hell to another,” said Katherine.

‘They’ve been punished twice’

The government does not publish the names of the companies that have had sponsor licences revoked or the reasons why.

Guidance issued to sponsors explains that action can be taken for infractions such as sponsoring workers when there are no vacancies or paying people less than was agreed.

However, aside from losing its overseas sponsorship licence, there are often no further consequences for a sponsor that breaks the rules.

Meanwhile, the Home Office is “punishing workers who have followed the rules”, said Aké Achi, the founder and chief executive of Migrants at Work Ltd, an organisation that supports people who have come to the UK on work visas.

“They’ve been punished twice,” he said – first by sponsors who have exploited them and then by the Home Office’s threat of deportation.

And while migrant care workers are being told to leave the UK, labour shortages persist. The latest data from charity Skills for Care shows 152,000 vacancies in the sector.

“It is an absolute crisis for the carers,” said Rumbi Bvunzawabaya, who advises care providers as a solicitor and is CEO of migrant-support organisation Tulia. She said while workers are being told they have to find a new employer, she has noticed in her work that the Home Office has made it harder for companies to sponsor visas.

The number of workers left in this situation is likely to have increased substantially during 2024, Bvunzawabaya said, because of the number of revocations she is aware have taken place so far this year. When she holds advice drop-in sessions in Coventry, care workers travel from as far as Northern Ireland to get support.

Lack of regulation

Campaigners and civil servants have criticised the government for failing to regulate companies before granting them sponsorship licences, as well as the way in which some licences have been revoked.

A recent report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI), the government’s immigration watchdog, found there was only one compliance officer for every 1,600 employers licensed to sponsor migrant workers.

It said licences were being granted even when compliance officers had expressed concerns about the company. In one instance, a licence was granted to a care manager who had been given a seven-year prison sentence for misconduct in public office.

In the case of Zainab’s former employer 24/7 Flex Care, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), which regulates health and social care providers, had raised the alarm as far back as April 2022. It warned that the company’s recruitment practices were not safe and that there was no evidence staff were being regularly tested for Covid-19 before going into vulnerable people’s homes. Yet the Home Office still granted the company a sponsorship licence a few months later.

Asked about this case, the Home Office did not respond. It told TBIJ: “Care providers acting as sponsors for migrants in England are now required to register with [the CQC] to crack down on worker exploitation and abuse within the sector.”

In a subsequent inspection earlier this year, the CQC cancelled the company’s registration, meaning it can no longer operate as a care provider. It reported that a culture of fear existed within the company, with staff “unwilling to speak to inspectors” and “fearful of repercussions”.

Besides Ismail and Zainab, dozens of other workers had been sponsored by the company and are likely to have been affected.

Home Office caseworkers told the ICIBI that they see cases of modern slavery on a daily basis but these were difficult to evidence because workers knew that a licence revocation could lead to them having their visa curtailed.

These findings are supported by a recent investigation by TBIJ and Citizens Advice based on the testimony of nearly 175 migrant care workers, many of whom said they were scared to report employers to the authorities because they feared losing their visas.

Zainab says that when she complained to 24/7 Flex Care, her manager warned her that she would be sent back to India if she spoke out.

The ICIBI report also cited a local authority that said the Home Office had suspended or revoked the licences of four providers without properly communicating it to the council, leaving 53 residents without care.

24/7 Flex Care did not respond to several requests for comment.

Hope for a few

Some care workers who faced losing their visa after licence revocations have been able to find a job within the small window given to them.

With five days left before her deadline, Rachel*, 43, from Nigeria was able to secure a sponsorship with the help of a friend from church.

She said the process not only affected her but also her three children who came to the UK, alongside her husband, as her dependents.

“Each time they come back from school, they will ask me if we’ve seen another sponsor. So it was really stressful for them,” she said.

She said others in her company have not been so lucky.

“It’s terrible, some of them cry,” she said. “You see a grown woman crying like a child … you wouldn’t even know the words you would tell her to console her.”

* Names have been changed to protect identities

Top photo: Ismail and Zainab. Credit: Richard Saker/The Observer.

Reporters: Emiliano Mellino and Vicky Gayle
Bureau Local editor: Gareth Davies
Deputy editors: Katie Mark and Chrissie Giles
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editors: Alex Hess and Emily Goddard
Fact checker: Ero Partsakoulaki

Our reporting on insecure work is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and is part of our Bureau Local project, which has many funders. None of our funders have any influence over our editorial decisions or output.