International students are being exploited in the care sector

International students from India are “increasingly” being exploited in the care sector, MPs have been told.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The Commons Home Affairs Committee has an inquiry on at the moment aiming to assess the scale of human trafficking in the UK, and the forms it takes – and one of today’s witnesses was Elysia McCaffrey, who is Chief Executive at the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA).

Back in February we learned that five people suspected of recruiting and exploiting Indian students working in care homes across North Wales had been handed a Slavery and Trafficking Risk Order (STRO), following a report of concerns about “the workers’ appearance and that they always appeared to be hungry.”

It said then that it had identified more than 50 Indian students as being potential victims of modern slavery and labour abuse over the previous 14 months.

What we don’t know is whether that’s just the tip of an iceberg, but McCaffrey certainly implied that students are being trapped by the 20 hours a week rule:

…As a student, you’re allowed to work 20 hours a week, they’re then being recruited by these kinds of care agencies that are forcing them to work longer hours, are forcing them to stay in really squalid conditions, and not paying them properly, and have the threat over them all the time that they’ve worked more than 20 hours, therefore, they breached their turn to their visa. So if they report them, it’s them. It’ll be in trouble. And we’ve had a few cases like this recently, and we’re seeing more reports to us along these lines.

She went on to say that the GLAA is working with the Care Quality Commission to identify what might be done to stop this from happening, and that it has some additional “prosecutions in the pipeline” around it.

From a policy perspective, McCaffrey was keen that that “being trapped” issue is at least recognised:

Yeah, I think it’s a recognition as well, where people have come on student visas, or skilled worker visas. They’re really good routes for people to come to the UK, but they can also make people vulnerable because they’re kind of used as a weapon against people. I think a recognition of that would be really helpful.

More broadly than this modern slavery aspect of the issue, the extent to which we might assume that international students are in the grey economy and not enjoying any real rights or protections ought to worry the sector.

This interim report of a project from Middlesex University surveyed about 250 students, almost half of which were international. It found that students were unsure over their employment rights, a quarter complained of unpaid extra work, a third experienced discrimination at work and one in five reported accidents and injuries at work.

It calls for the establishment of an employment rights advice service at the university, and education about workplace challenges and employment rights upon induction.

I think two things are interesting here. The first is that increasingly it feels like a risk assessment approach to student welfare ought to be adopted by universities – identifying the issues that a particular cohort with particular characteristics might face and then governing bodies being assured that appropriate mitigations are being taken.

That’s certainly, in my view, the approach that should be taken over the new integrated Welfare duty in the Welsh legislation that is setting up the new tertiary commission.

The second is that where the state sets up universities as its agents over immigration issues, it positions those universities as places that students might reasonably be expected to avoid when they encounter issues that they think will put their immigration status at risk.

If the UK higher education sector must fund massification by expanding this export industry into the global south, the least it can do is take some deliberate and strategic steps to ensure that students can get independent advice and help when they hit an issue.

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