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The Exploitation of Overseas Nurses

In the UK many facets of our health and care services are dependant on overseas nurses. Hundreds of thousands of nurses travel from abroad to work here, with just under 24,000 overseas nurses joining the MNC register in the 2022 period.

For many of them, it has been a long held dream to come to the UK, and one that they have worked very hard to achieve. But tragically, some of the nurses that come to the UK are being exploited, by both the agencies who arrange their travel and employment, and their new employers.

According to a survey by the RCN, most overseas nurses working within the NHS receive the same pay and working conditions as their British counterparts, but within the private sector some nurses are being overworked, underpaid, and are charged thousands of pounds by recruitment agencies.

The BBC recently reported that as many as one in three nurses from overseas are recruited by independent agencies, and are sometimes charged up to £2000 as a signing on fee. With so many fees to cover – such as airfare and finding accommodation – these nurses are being taken advantage of by greedy agencies exploiting their desire to come to the UK and build better lives.

To make matters worse, once the nurses arrive to start their jobs, they find themselves in untenable working conditions, and in some cases not even being paid the minimum wage. UNISON has become aware of serious issues within care homes, where unscrupulous employers are exploiting and trapping nurses in terrible working conditions, threatening them with crippling financial penalties if they try to leave.

According to UNISON, some nurses are being thrown into chaotic working conditions, with insufficient training and in desperately understaffed environments, putting both the nurses and patients at risk. They are forced to work extremely long shifts, sometimes working day and night shifts in the same week and working to the point of exhaustion.

Some nurses find themselves living on site, and this can leave them vulnerable to further exploitation, with bosses expecting them to work anytime, day or night, even on their days off.

It can be challenging to leave the job if their visa is sponsored by their employee. Leaving can mean having to find a new employer to sponsor them, or face returning to their home countries and abandoning their dreams of working in the UK.

Some employers are demanding huge sums of money in exchange for releasing nurses from their contracts, including charges for the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS), despite the fact the employer can recoup those losses via a refund. They may also make working life difficult for staff or refuse to provide references when staff try to leave if they do not pay the costs being demanded by the company.

UNISON can help with getting employers to reduce, or in some cases, wave all charges. But not all overseas nurses will be aware they can seek help from UNISON, and nurses who cannot afford to pay the charges may end up trapped in jobs that take over their lives.

What you need to know

  • You do not need to pay huge sums of money to come to the UK and work.
  • Your passport and documents are yours – do not hand them over to agencies or middle-men.
  • If you have come to the UK to work and have experienced similar treatment, or know of other nurses in this situation, please contact UNISON via:
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