The RCN has warned that while the Government’s overseas recruitment code of practice is a step in the right direction, a lack of clarity over how the rules will be enforced risk leaving international recruits at the mercy of ‘rogue employers’.
An updated version of the Government’s code of practice for international recruitment of health and social care workers, originally published in February 2021, has ‘strengthened the best practice benchmarks to ensure fairness and consistency’ and ‘set out principles on the use of repayment clauses in employment contracts’.
Repayment clauses are designed to help retain staff and recoup recruitment costs by allowing employers to charge staff for hiring expenses should they try to leave their contracts early. The clauses may cover expenses such as flights to the UK, visas, the costs of language exams, and the cost of the interview process.
These clauses caused controversy earlier this year when an Observer investigation found that NHS trusts and private care homes had been tying overseas recruits to their roles for up to five years with feels up to £14,000 even when the recruit faced bullying or discrimination at work. At the time, these clauses were compared to ‘debt bondage’ by some of the UK’s most prominent modern slavery lawyers.
The Government has now updated its overseas recruitment code of practice with four principles for the inclusion of a repayment clause in any contract. These principles are: transparency, proportionate costs, timing and flexibility.
However, RCN general secretary Pat Cullen points out there is a worrying lack of clarity over how these new rules will be enforced.
Ms Cullen said: ‘Employers must respect and apply these new rules and the UK Government must clarify how it will ensure they are enforced, especially in the independent sector where nurses and support workers frequently face harassment from rogue employers.
‘The horrendous practice of international nurses being charged excessive fees to change jobs in the UK must end. Measures like requiring employers to produce evidence to support any charges are a step in the right direction.’
The transparency principle requires that the repayment clause is set out clearly in contract or job offer, and explained in full to the candidate, while the timing principle says that the repayment schedule must see costs taper downwards over time.
The proportionate costs principle sets out which fees can be charged for, a list which includes: agency fees, visa fees, sponsor licence fees, immigration skills charge, and relocation expenses.
Finally, the flexibility principle says that ’employers should be flexible about when they levy the repayment clause and consider waiving them in certain circumstances’, such as when the health of the recruit is being adversely impacted or where the recruit leaves due to bullying or discrimination.
The new guidelines for overseas recruitment also reiterate the commitment that there should be no recruitment from countries currently on the ‘red list’ of nations which are considered to have health and social care workforce shortages by the WHO.
However, recruitment from red list countries has increased ten-fold since 2019, with the number of recruits from red-list countries ballooning from 417 in 2019 to 4,272 in 2022.
‘Ministers need to do more to tackle recruitment from ‘red list’ countries which are facing the most significant workforce challenges,’ said Ms Cullen, ‘while the UK government insists this is not being done proactively, recent data shows a ten-fold increase in recruitment from these countries.
‘We call on governments across the UK to invest in expanding the domestic workforce, and to introduce bilateral agreements to ensure all international recruitment is mutually beneficial for countries, professionals and populations. Recruitment must be transparent, dignified and ensure that anyone in employment in the UK is free from exploitation.’
Nursing in Practice has contacted the DHSC for comment on how it plans to enforce the guidelines.