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Recognise Key Role of Migrant Care Workers in Our Ageing Society

Resource type: Research Report

Centre on Migration, Policy and Society |

Migrant workers play a vital role in the care of older people in the United Kingdom but they face poor pay and working conditions that the government must address to ensure fair treatment for the workers, according to this report funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies and the Nuffield Foundation.

Oxford University researchers have highlighted the scale of the challenge of recruiting enough care workers to meet the needs of an ageing population. According to a study by the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) published today (25 June), the UK is increasingly reliant on foreign-born care workers, particularly in London. Foreign-born workers already account for 19 per cent (120,000) of care workers looking after older people nationally. Unless pay and conditions significantly improve, meeting the care needs of an ageing population to 2030 could mean a further 3,000 foreign-born carers (2.5 per cent increase) are needed each year, assuming the UK maintains its current level of care provision.

In 2008 almost half of UK employers said they were struggling to fill vacancies for care workers in care homes and home care, citing low pay and conditions as reasons for the recruitment problem. 28 per cent of care workers recruited in 2007 to care for older people were foreign-born. Most, including students and family members who find work in the care sector, are recruited after they are already in the UK. The proportion of foreign-born care workers overall has more than doubled over the last ten years. In London, six out of ten of all care workers are now foreign-born. In a recession-hit UK, there has been an increase in job applications but employers say some applicants do not have the skills, experience or motivation for care work with older people.

Co-author Dr Alessio Cangiano, of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society at Oxford University (COMPAS), said: ‘The actual level of demand for migrants will depend on whether pay and conditions improve. Unless government acts to address the root causes of the shortage of staff, there will be a growing demand for care workers from abroad. If so, this should be planned, not an unintended consequence of low pay.’

Older people and employers value the quality of care provided by migrant care workers: nearly three quarters of employers (71 per cent) said they have a good ‘work ethic’ and 82 per cent said they are willing to work all shifts.

However, the study reveals widespread discrimination in pay and working conditions. The average pay of care workers is 6.56 per hour, but some employers are paying below the minimum wage. The study also highlights a negative attitude towards migrant carers by some older people. Care workers and employers reported verbal abuse and refusals by some older people to be cared for by foreign-born care workers.

Sarah Spencer, Deputy Director of COMPAS, said: ‘This study shows that we already rely heavily on migrant care workers. Yet we are talking about an invisible migrant workforce, a neglected dimension that has not surfaced in policy debates on the future of the sector. Migrant carers are likely to have growing significance in the next 20 years and recognising this is vital to debates about the quality of care for older people.’

If the UK continues to rely on foreign-born care workers, the study recommends:

  • The Government should retain the limited migration entry channel for senior care workers and monitor the potential long-term need for new migrants if pay and conditions in the sector do not attract sufficient suitable job applicants within the UK.

  • Government and employers should ensure that migrants have access to English language classes. 66 per cent of employers said they thought migrant workers’ standard of English could be a problem.

  • The Equality and Human Rights Commission needs to address the discrimination experienced by migrant care workers, including guidance for employers on handling the hostility of some older people towards them.

  • The Care Quality Commission, and local authorities funding home care, should monitor the implications of the trend towards employment of migrant care workers by older people in their own homes; and ensure that older people and their families have advice and support in relation to their responsibilities as employers.

The study:

Migrant Care Workers in Ageing Societies: report on research findings in the UK,” by Alessio Cangiano, Isabel Shutes, Sarah Spencer and George Leeson, is published by the ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, University of Oxford, on 25 June 2009. The report is one of four studies carried out in the UK, Ireland, Canada and the USA on which separate reports, and an overview comparative report, will be published later in 2009.

The study used the collective term ‘migrant’ to refer to all foreign-born workers, embracing migrants who have lived in the UK for some time as well as those who have recently arrived. However, much of the data and analysis focused on ‘recent’ migrants: people who have entered the UK in the last decade (from 1998). The study was based on a range of data sources, including:

  • analysis of national data sets including the Labour Force Survey and National Minimum Dataset for Social Care; –

  • a postal and online survey, between January and June 2008, of 557 employers/managers of care workers residential and nursing homes and home care agencies in older adult care and 30 in-depth interviews;

  • face to face interviews with 56 migrant care workers between June and December 2007; and

  • five focus groups with older people including current and prospective care users.

The report is one of four studies carried out in the UK, Ireland, Canada and the USA on which separate reports, and an overview comparative report, will be published later this year. The UK study was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and The Atlantic Philanthropies.

The authors: Dr Alessio Cangiano, Dr Isabel Shutes and Sarah Spencer are based at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), and Dr George Leeson at Oxford Institute of Ageing; University of Oxford.


22 per cent of the population is projected to be aged 65 years and over by 2030, up from 16 per cent in 2007; and the number of those aged 80 years and over will double to just under eight per cent.

19 per cent of care workers looking after older people in the UK are foreign-born, approximately 120,000 people (2006/7).

Skills for Care estimates that the adult social care workforce in England may need to increase from 1.39m in 2006 to a possible 2.5m by 2025.

There is no entry channel to the UK for migrants to take up care jobs except for limited entry for senior care workers. Most of the foreign-born care workers who do not already have UK citizenship or permanent residence (including former refugees) came from the European Union or as family members, students, domestic workers, working holidaymakers or on ancestral visas. Reform of entry rules for students and working holidaymakers may reduce the availability of young people to work in the sector.

The most frequent countries of origin of recent migrant care workers in older adult care are Poland, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, India and Nigeria.