Foreign nurses have to endure low pay, poor conditions and exploitation despite the dependence of the NHS on overseas recruits to ease its staffing crisis.

One in three nurses from overseas is forced to pay commission fees of between £500 and £2,000 to recruitment agencies. Once in post, the nurses are paid an average of £600 less than British staff, a survey by the Royal College of Nursing found.

Some foreign recruits said that contracts drawn up by commercial agencies meant they were paid at rates below the minimum wage and threatened with deportation if they complained.

The Department of Trade and Industry is currently prosecuting two British agencies. The legal action was instigated by the RCN, which yesterday revealed the findings of a survey of 1,200 foreign nurses to its annual conference in Harrogate.

The NHS is increasingly dependent on foreign staff to fill hospital vacancies and a record 8,403 new recruits were registered to work in the UK in the year ending March 2001.

There are estimated to be some 60,000 overseas nurses working in Britain with Filipinos, Africans and Indian nurses among the recent influx. But Dr Beverly Malone, general secretary of the RCN, warned that international competition for nurses would grow in the coming years and Britain could not afford to lose out. "It is important that both homegrown nurses and internationally recruited nurses are supported to work together."

Last year a nursing home in Bristol was banned from training overseas staff after 95 Filipino nurses were treated like "skivvies" and made to clean cars and wash floors.

The survey showed that foreign nurses were paid an average of £17,900 compared with £18,500 among UK-trained staff. Many are subject to different terms and conditions and forced to do menial work.

Within the NHS in Wales, it was standard practice to pay foreign recruits lower salaries while they completed six-month adaptation courses. The RCN condemned this practice and also called for a ban on private agencies being able to charge foreign nurses commission fees. Such fees are banned for British staff.

Dr Malone said: "It is not acceptable that nurses are paying commission to recruitment agencies to work in the UK. This practice is unlawful for homegrown nurses recruited via an agency and has been outlawed in the Philippines.

"It is an abuse of an essential and low-paid group of workers who will have already had to meet various costs such as air fares."