Foreign nurses exploited in visa scandal

The Government was yesterday accused of ignoring a scam that brings in foreign nurses on rock-bottom wages. Britain's biggest union yesterday urged the Government to stop agencies importing qualified staff to work illegally in private care homes for salaries more than 40 per cent lower than their British colleagues.

The Government was yesterday accused of ignoring a scam that brings in foreign nurses on rock-bottom wages. Britain's biggest union yesterday urged the Government to stop agencies importing qualified staff to work illegally in private care homes for salaries more than 40 per cent lower than their British colleagues.

The nurses, most from the Philippines, India and Africa, are brought in to work full-time on student visas which restrict to working only 20 hours a week. The staff are forced to do up to 60 hours a week to pay off agency "placement" fees of between £2,000 and £2,500. They also have to pay £1,200 for "adaptation" courses introducing them to British techniques and procedures.

Filipino nurses told the annual conference of the public service union Unison that many of their colleagues were too frightened to complain because they thought they would be deported for breaching the conditions of their visas.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said the nurses were being left to the mercy of "unscrupulous employment agencies". Overseas workers were given student documents because checks were less rigorous, he added. Qualified British nurses are paid £8.25 an hour, but the overseas staff get £4.75, just 25p above the national minimum wage. Mr Prentis said agencies were conning British embassies in the Philippines, Africa and India into issuing student visas to qualified nurses. A Department of Health spokeswoman said British embassies in the countries concerned had a duty to ensure the visa's conditions were explained to individuals.

Mr Prentis described the documents given to the overseas employees as "passports to misery". He said the work permits entitling them to take full employment, were "not worth the paper they are written on". The key document was the visa, without which they had no employment rights.He said they were paid "a pittance" and made to do cleaning, cooking and laundry instead of using their nursing skills. "The scandal is that they are so scared that they will be kicked out of the country." He said it brought shame on the Government for allowing qualified nurses to be treated in such a way.

One nurse, Allan Del Rosario, who qualified in the Philippines, told the conference he came through an agency because it promised to find him work quickly. He ended up sleeping on an old mattress on the floor of a walk-in closet in a private nursing home.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Nurses who come as students for adaptation courses are entitled to work in excess of 20 hours a week where this is necessary as part of the course. The Home Office is working with the Department of Health to review the way overseas-qualified nurses enter the UK."

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