They wanted to keep me as a slave

August 17. 2022. – 08:06 AM


They wanted to keep me as a slave
A care-home in Bristol, in January 2022 – Photo: Matt Card / Getty Images


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Hungarian women make up a significant percentage of the UK’s live-in care workers – and while they earn significantly more than they would for the same job at home, a recent report highlights serious problems and the threat of modern-day slavery.

“At first I cared for spinal injury patients, which is the hardest. They do not wear diapers, so you either have to wash out their rectum, or massage them until what needs to come out comes out. But they don’t tell you about this at first, because they have to win you over.

It's like MLM or scientology. They only tell you what it’s really about at the very end – after you have invested a bunch of time and money”

-Eszter, (name has been changed for privacy) who is in her twenties told Telex. She has been working in the UK as a live-in careworker since 2020. She was still a child when her family lost everything due to a foreign currency loan gone bad, so she had to work through high school, and quickly saw that she won’t get anywhere if she stays at home. Once she finished university, she decided to work abroad so she can save up enough money to start a business of her own in Hungary. It was during the pandemic that she took a mostly online course which enabled her to be a live-in careworker in England. What attracted her to this job was that she wouldn’t need to spend money on rent (which was only partly true, as she later found out), but she could still make good money – especially when compared with Hungary – and thus also save enough.

Eszter is one of the live-in carers working in the UK who participated in an 18-month study conducted by the world's largest research team on modern slavery. The research included London care workers originally from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Hungary and Poland. According to a recently published study of The University of Nottingham Rights Lab

Social care in England remains severely understaffed, and despite Brexit, foreign labour is being used to fill the gap, creating a breeding ground for exploitation and, in more extreme cases, slavery.

Based on the study done by the University of Nottingham, as well as the accounts of the Hungarian researchers who worked on the same, and the experience of some of the participants, this article intends to show what live-in care looks like for foreigners – especially Hungarians working in the United Kingdom.

Speaking the language and being resourceful are a must

Eszter was young and had a solid command of English, specific goals and an entrepreneurial attitude when she started working as a live-in care worker in the UK. She has switched employers several times and has been able to effectively represent her interests. Not only is she aware of the relevant legislation, but she didn’t shy away from suing her first employer with the help of the free legal aid service. She left that intermediation agency after spending two days waiting for her promised replacement in vain. Since nobody came, she had to keep working and her trip home fell through due to the delay. In spite of this, her employer only reimbursed her for her extra costs (train and plane ticket and lodging) when they received the official court summons.

The story of another Hungarian, Anna, mentioned in the report is very similar to Eszter’s experience. She found a job in the UK through a Hungarian recruiting agency. At first she worked at a care-home as a permanent night carer, so she mostly worked nights. Below is her summary of the vulnerable situation she found herself in:

“I was there for about three months. The pay was very low there, they charged a lot for accommodation, and they treated me very badly, so basically they wanted to keep me as a slave. So they didn’t want to pay me properly or register me. They didn’t expect that I could speak English well enough that I could find out and arrange things for myself, like national insurance number, bank account etc. And they didn’t even want to let me go, they tried to stop me from leaving.

The only reason the two, above quoted Hungarian women were not exploited was that they both spoke the language and stood up for themselves – but the fact remains that there is a significant risk of exploitation in the current English system when it comes to foreign residential care workers.

English examples of global problems

It is a global phenomenon that due to economic reasons women from poorer regions are forced to move to more affluent countries to care for the elderly. This labor flow is known as care migration. This phenomenon, which is the result of an unequal starting position, has some general characteristics regardless of the location. One of them is that care workers are often expected to do the work of a maid as well (cook, clean, do laundry, tend the garden), and when they are not given enough time for rest, they keep working and do everything they are told, simply because they need the money. There is also a high risk of sexual harassment or racist manifestations in this job, while it is very difficult for those who experience such things to ask for help given that they don’t possess local kowledge, often don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language.

The research of Nottingham University went even deeper and also revealed problems arising from the specificities of the English system. One of these is the fact that in the UK the law permits certain employers to deduct a daily amount of 8,7 pounds (around 4000 forints) from the wage for accomodation. The legislation about this was originally introduced because of seasonal agricultural workers, and as research head Caroline Emberson points out, it is not applicable to live-in care workers:

“It is unethical and “absurd” that low-paid live-in care workers should be charged for accommodation when their jobs require them to stay in clients’ homes overnight.”

Foreigners are needed post-Brexit too

There are over 1.6 million people working in adult social care (including elderly care and residential care in general) in the UK. This means that the sector employs more people than the entire NHS, but experts still estimate the care workforce shortage at 10 per cent.

The fact that foreign labour, cheap by British standards, is essential to maintaining the country's elderly care system is evident not only from the fact that immigrants already make up 16 per cent of the workforce in this sector, but also from the way attitudes towards immigrant carers have changed since Brexit.

After the abolition of free immigration of EU citizens, Brexit initially made direct foreign recruitment in the care sector impossible for two reasons: firstly, by classifying care work as "low-skilled" and secondly, by setting an explicitly high minimum wage threshold for the granting of visas. It comes as no surprise that a significantly lower number of foreign care workers have arrived in the country (1.8 per cent of all immigrants entered for this purpose in the first quarter of 2021, compared with 5.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2019) recently.

"Initially the perception was that social workers should not come from abroad either, even the official government advisory body on immigration, the Migration Advisory Committee, was of the view that the shortage of workers in the social sector should not be tackled by migration, but then they quickly started backpedaling."

– explains Ágnes Turnpenny Kozma, researcher at Oxford Brookes University, and co-author of the fresh report on migrant live-in care workers in London published by Nottingham University. Care work is now on the skill shortage list, so getting a work permit can be fast-tracked and it has a lower salary threshold. It has also been included in a special visa category (for health and care work), which means further facilitations, such as social security benefits. According to the report, these all make it clear that contrary to previous official communication, the UK government remains willing to use migration to supplement the existing social care workforce.

It’s still better “out there” than in Hungary

Although the recently published study explicitly focuses on the problems and on areas where the English live-in care system is lacking, a counterpoint to this negative picture must be brought up, especially from a Hungarian standpoint – Kinga Milánkovics, who conducted the Hungarian interviews for the research points out.

"It was a great experience for me to see that there is such a high level of scientific and practical engagement in England with the conditions in which residential care workers work. I found that they were interested in what we had to say, in our voice. A particular strength of the research is that carers were asking carers when the interviews were being conducted."

– Milánkovics told Telex. She has been working in England as a care worker for many years herself, but is also managing a 13 thousand-member strong group on Facebook about caring for the elderly, live-in care and at-home care in Hungary. As one of the founders of the Hekate Conscious Aging Foundation (Hekate Tudatos Öregedés Alapítvány), she is well aware of how the Hungarian system works. In her opinion, at the lowest level of live-in care in both countries, the problem is similar: many take advantage of the fact that the women who are willing to do this “have gotten used to putting up with just about anything”, and are not ones to say anything or speak up for themselves.

According to Milánkovics, the big difference between the two countries is in the career prospects for the carers/nurses: “In the British structure, the conditions for legal work are given, and the system gives room for and even appreciates entrepreneurship. This can be taken to a level where residential care is really a business, where you are a service provider and are treated as such by your clients”. She adds that it is also good that in England, the researchers are not afraid to make claims, and are not worried that if they reveal problems, this will also bring to light what changes need to be made. At the same time, she does not see any realistic prospect for decision-makers, academics or even NGOs in Hungary to address the issue of elderly care in the same depth as the recent London report.

This workforce might be missing from Hungary in the future

Eszter, who was quoted at the beginning of the article calculates that she is a few months away from reaching the amount she needs to start her own business in Hungary. If she succeeds, she will give up live-in care in the UK, as she believes that this work is both physically and emotionally destructive for those who get stuck in it for a long time. Although she will soon graduate from university, she does not intend to work in the field she has studied for. As she says: “Making enough money as an employee is impossible at home”.

Eszter now says that if she were to have financial difficulties again, she would only consider using her experience as a care worker abroad, as they will never pay enough to make it worth doing this job in Hungary.

Indeed, the salaries that can be earned for this kind of work in Hungary are considerably lower – according to Milánkovics, the daily wage is five times higher in England. This is also due to the fact that families in need who cannot afford to employ a live-in carer can request support from local authorities.

Although the majority of Hungarians (54 percent) say that the state should take care of the financial burden of caring for the elderly, not only is there no financial assistance for this job in Hungary, but it is not easy to legally employ a live-in care worker either.

However, both home care and live-in care are needed in many homes. This is also shown by the fact that in Hungary, women from Romania (and Ukraine before the war) have for years been making up part of the workforce. There are no official statistics on the number of women who leave Hungary to provide live-in care abroad for higher wages, but the extent of the problem is illustrated by the fact that a third of Hungarians know a woman who works abroad as a care worker or nurse.

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The translation of this article was made possible by our cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.