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“Taking back control of our borders”. It’s the dependants stupid!

Family playing board game

“Taking back control of our borders”. It’s the dependants stupid!

Almost four years after the UK left the European Union (EU) and almost three years since it introduced a new immigration system to replace European Freedom of Movement provisions, it is clear that “taking back control of our borders” has not resulted in reduced migration to the UK. The latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) put the level of net migration – the difference calculated between immigration and emigration – at 672,000 in the year ending June 2023. The equivalent figure at the time of the 2016 Brexit referendum was 321,000.

According to the ONS, the most recent increase in immigration is the result of more people coming to undertake paid work, especially in the social care sector. Home Office data show that in the year ending June 2023, 77,662 visas were granted to care workers and home carers (59,996) and senior care workers (17,666) combined; this number constitutes two-thirds of all the Health and Care worker visas granted in that year, and just over one-third of all worker visas granted.

The Skilled Worker – Health and Care visa

Care Workers and Home Carers became eligible for the Skilled Worker – Health and Care visa in February 2022. The visa was launched in August 2020 for medical professionals working with the NHS, an NHS supplier or in adult social care. Its extension to the roles of Care Assistant, Care Worker, Carer, Home Care Assistant, Home Carer and Support Worker (Nursing Home) followed a recommendation by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) in its 2021 Annual Report. MAC recommended the move, along with the placement of these roles on the Shortage Occupation List (allowing employers to sponsor care workers subject to a minimum salary of £20,480 per year), in an attempt to address the social care sector’s recruitment and retention challenges, which had been exacerbated by the cessation of European Freedom of Movement following Brexit.

The recommendation was warmly received, publicly at least, by both the Department of Health and Social Care and the Home Office. Announcing the changes, the then Home Secretary Priti Patel said:

This is our New Plan for Immigration in action, delivering our commitment to support the NHS and the wider health and care sector by making it easier for health professionals to live and work in the UK.

And, the then Minister for Care Gillian Keegan said:

This change will support getting more people into care as we implement our long-term strategy for a fair and sustainable care sector that meets the needs of everyone.

According to the Kings Fund, the ability to recruit migrant care workers through the visa change has helped the sector to “keep its head above water”. It notes, however, that the vacancy rate in the sector remains high – at an estimated 8.9% in June 2023 – and is higher than that for the economy as a whole (3.4%). 

Rising net migration. It’s the dependants stupid!

It is against that backdrop that in responding to the latest net migration figures with a five-point plan designed to deliver the “biggest ever reduction in net migration”, Home Secretary James Cleverly did not problematise the care worker visa per se, but rather the right contained within it to bring dependants. The visa allows migrant care workers to be joined by partners and child/ren under 18 years; dependants, however, have no right to claim public funds.

Cleverly told the House of Commons,

The first point of our five-point plan will be to end the abuse of the health and care visa. We will stop overseas care workers bringing family dependants….

Asked about the impact on the social care sector, Cleverly responded that

individuals with a family may be dissuaded from coming to the UK, but not potential workers without dependants. 

Such problematisation of migrant workers’ dependants is now new. Kilkey and Baldassar argue that historically, migrants were constructed as individual units of labour by Global North receiving states, and their family and care needs were accorded little or no recognition. They point to the temporary recruitment schemes for low-skilled labour in parts of Europe and North America in the middle of the twentieth century as archetypal examples of such a logic. These so called ‘guest worker schemes’ did not generally allow dependants to accompany migrant workers. The Baltic Cygnet scheme was one of the first post-war labour recruitment schemes in Britain. It targeted refugee women displaced by the war across Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia for domestic worker in TB (tuberculosis) hospitals in Britain. Among the strict eligibility criteria were that recruits had to be single, and officially they had to have no dependants, whether children or other relatives.

Moving to current times, Kilkey and Baldassar report on a 50-country comparative study of contemporary immigration regimes, which classified the UK, along with Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as a ‘neoliberal regime’. The authors of the study, Anna Boucher and Justin Gest, assert that

only Kafala and quasi-Kafala regimes more actively select and exclude immigrants in the interest of maximising their economic contribution and minimising the risk of their financial dependence on state resources.

As Kilkey and Baldassar argue,

neo-liberalism further constructs the ‘useful’ economic migrant as an independent and non-relational actor, leading to restrictive rules around accompanying / joining family members.

“Taking back control of our borders”: a race to the bottom for the rights of migrant social care workers?

Under the UK’s neoliberal approach to migration, “taking back control of our borders” does not necessarily mean less migration. It was Boris Johnson in his 2019 election manifesto, who abandoned the Conservative’s longstanding pledge to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”. With the aim to “Get Brexit Done”, Johnson promised “an Australian-style points-based system to control immigration”. What “controlling immigration” under the logic of neoliberalism means then is immigration on the terms of the Conservatives, so:

  • Being able to turn on and off the tap,
  • Being able to control who is allowed entry,
  • Being able to control under what conditions and with what rights and entitlements migrants are to enter and reside.

Johnson was so opposed to European Freedom of Movement because it stood apart in not reducing migrants to individual economic units of labour. Albeit subject to limitations and conditions, mobile EU citizens, including those coming to work in social care, were able to be accompanied by their family members (broadly defined to include ascendants and descendants), and, once resident in the UK, EU migrants and family members had the right to equal treatment in employment, remuneration and conditions of work, as well as broader social entitlements. As a result, European Freedom of Movement offered choices to EU migrants around how their families were formed, reproduced and cared for in the context of their migration projects. While acknowledging that structural factors, such as differences in education and pension systems, long working hours, high childcare costs and racialisation, could constrain EU migrants’ choices in the UK, research also highlighted the diversity of family practices facilitated by European Freedom of Movement, relating to family-formation and family-reunification, the care of children and older people, spanning co-territorial and transnational arrangements, and incorporating a wide range of family members.

The prohibition on dependants marks a critical turning point for the rights of migrant social care workers in the UK, who are now more likely to be recruited from India, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, than EU countries. It drastically curtails their capacity for social reproduction and family-life, while increasing the capacity of employers to squeeze labour out of them, and allows the UK to “free ride” on the back of poorer countries where migrant care workers’ social reproduction will now be relegated to. A key question is whether the prohibition of dependants signals the beginning of a race to the bottom for the rights of migrant social care workers in the UK? Under the prevailing neoliberal logic governing UK migration policy that might depend on what impact the restrictions have on recruitment to the social care sector. In resisting the ban, migrants may simply decide no longer to come.   

About the Author

Majella holds a PhD in Social Policy from the University of York, and has worked at the University of Sheffield, in the Department of Sociological Studies, since 2011.

Majella is a qualitative researcher working at the intersection of migration, family and care studies, including a focus on life-course dynamics. She researches with groups traditionally seen as ‘marginalised’ / ‘excluded’ / ‘disadvantaged’, including older people with a migrant background, young migrants and asylum seekers and migrant care workers. 

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