Countries with aging populations have all depended for decades to a greater or lesser extent on those born outside their borders to bolster their care workforce. About 16% of our social care sector was made up migrants before the pandemic and Brexit border restrictions, but there is the potential to go much further. A quarter of the US direct care workforce is non-US born and in Australia 37% of care workers in aged care are immigrants.
Migrants work longer hours (about 16% more on average) than their UK-born colleagues and employers regularly report their willingness to pick up night and weekend shifts and greater flexibility compared to the domestic workforce. They are often over-qualified for the job they do and represent a committed, valuable and flexible workforce.
But Brexit, exacerbated by Covid, has effectively closed off this labour pool. Adding care workers to the Shortage Occupation List, as has been implemented recently, is nowhere near to being a remedy. Employers are reporting practical challenges in qualifying pay rates and concerns over achieving parity with current staff wages. The sponsorship process is lengthy and admin-heavy and requires significant cost and time to support workers to settle. Particularly for care providers in the high cost South East of England, there is also the risk of newly-sponsored employees choosing to move to lower cost parts of the country once employed here, or joining the higher-paying NHS.
Added to that, there is demand from, and incentives offered by, countries still in the EU, such as Germany, which in many cases, present a much more appealing destination for migrant labour considering direct care roles.
Before the pandemic and Brexit, EU-born workers made up 7% of the social care workforce. The huge populations of potential migrant workers living in EU countries mean that much of our shortfall of labour could, in theory, be made up from this group alone, especially when you consider over a third of Australia’s care workforce are migrants.
Recent events in Ukraine may provide a short-term potential boost but there is much uncertainty over how many refugees may choose the UK as a destination and how long they will remain here.
Regardless, our immigration policy must become much more welcoming. Further incentives to become a care worker in the UK should be offered, such as financial support to settle, especially around the cost of housing and transport. This needs to be combined with long term pay increases for care workers across the board to offset cost of living increases and recognise their contribution. Pay alone is not a panacea – in fact increasing pay rates can lead to a move from full time to part time hours, but it, along with attracting migrant workers are critical parts of a solution to the workforce crisis.
Neil Eastwood is Founder and CEO of Care Friends and author of Saving Social Care. He will be presenting a workshop at the NCF Managers Conference on 14-15th March.