The number of referrals made by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) over potential cases of modern slavery among the social care workforce in England has more than quadrupled within a year, Nursing in Practice has been told.
The CQC has shared data which reveals a ‘notable rise’ in the number of referrals it has made around potential modern slavery in social care settings – up from seven in 2021 to 30 in 2022.
And from the start of 2023 until 16 March, the health watchdog had already referred a total of six potential cases.
‘Modern slavery and the exploitation of workers in health and social care is completely unacceptable,’ a spokesperson for the CQC told Nursing in Practice.
‘We have seen a notable rise in referrals of potential instances of modern slavery since the beginning of 2022.’
In comparison, during pre-pandemic years, there were four potential cases referred in 2018 and seven in 2019.
The CQC does not have powers of enforcement over cases of modern slavery but as members of the Government Agency Intelligence Network it is able to refer cases to the relevant police force.
Likewise, the CQC is only able to act in areas under its regulation, which includes the recruitment process as conducted by care providers.
The spokesperson added: ‘Whilst CQC does not have the powers under our regulations to investigate allegations of modern slavery, if such concerns are raised with us, we will share these with agencies that have the remit to investigate and take enforcement action under the Modern Slavery Act 2015.’
Separately, new data from the modern slavery charity Unseen, which operates the UK Modern Slavery Exploitation Helpline, has also shown a sharp increase in the number of cases reported within the social care sector.
Shared initially with the BBC, the charity’s data showed 106 cases of modern slavery had been reported to its helpline, within the UK’s care sector, in 2022 – an increase of 600% from 2021 (15 cases).
Unseen director Justine Carter told Nursing in Practice that the charity was ‘seeing numbers continue to climb, with almost 70 modern slavery cases already raised during the first half of 2023’.
She warned: ‘Labour shortages in the care sector are fuelling the number of modern slavery cases reported to the Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline.
‘Coerced or threatened by their exploiters and with no understanding of their rights, many workers won’t try to leave their situation, feeling unable to seek the help and support they need.’
She added: ‘We must raise awareness among CQC inspectors, labour providers and care providers as well as helping workers to understand their rights to mitigate these significant risks to care sector workers.’
A Nursing and Midwifery Council roundtable event, attended by Nursing in Practice last week, heard from Skills for Care chief executive Oonagh Smyth who warned of ethical issues around the recruitment of nurses from overseas into social care.
Ms Smyth told the event that while Skills for Care data showed reduced vacancy rates in the social care sector and a 1% growth in the size of the workforce, there was a strong reliance on international recruitment.
Ms Smyth pointed to a recent Skills for Care report which found ‘70,000 people have been recruited internationally’.
She said the ‘impact of recruiting from overseas can’t be underestimated’ and stressed it was ‘so important and it’s had such a positive impact’.
However, she added: ‘What we’re also hearing is issues about the ethics of international recruitment as well as the processes.
‘So, it’s really important that the information and support is there to ensure international recruitment is being used in a positive and ethical way.’
A government spokesperson said: ‘We strongly condemn offering health and care worker visa holders employment under false pretences.
‘The government does not tolerate illegal activity in the labour market and any accusations of illegal employment practices will be thoroughly looked into. Those found operating unlawfully may face prosecution or removal from the sponsorship register.’
The Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline can be reached on 08000 121 700. The helpline is free, open 24/7, and provides support and information to the NHS and members of the public.