Whistleblower of healthcare worker scolded by Home Office for exploitation claims

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A victim of suspected labor abuse who disclosed confidential details of exploitation to government investigators says she has been subjected to threats and harassment after being exposed to her employer.

The 25-year-old Zimbabwean national was interviewed by Home Office compliance officers for an investigation into illegal recruitment practices and told them she paid a fee of around £1,500 to an agent who arranged a care home in Surrey to sponsor her visa .

It is illegal to charge a worker a fee for finding work and the government has promised to end this practice, which could put victims at risk of falling into modern day slavery.

The employee, who was interviewed with several colleagues, claims that the interviewer has given her an assurance that her identity will not be revealed. But days after the interview, she was contacted by her employer asking why she had cooperated. The care home had been given her name and details of her comments, including the allegations of abuse and the illegal fees, according to documents released by the Observer.

The woman, who arrived in the UK in March 2022, said she had since been threatened by her employer, who questioned why she had complied with the inquiry, and was accused of misconduct at an assessment. Her visa is conditional on her employment with the company, which means she may have to leave the UK if her sponsorship is revoked.

She said: “I no longer feel safe. My family told me to tell the Home Office the truth, but now I wish I had just kept my mouth shut. We didn’t know that the agent had no right to charge us that money, so I thought the Home Office would see me as a victim. Instead, they exposed me to harassment and threats from my employer.”

Migrant rights groups said the case raised concerns about safeguards for whistleblowers who comply with government investigations, many of whom have precarious employment or visa situations. Employees are often interviewed as part of compliance checks at companies that sponsor licenses and are asked to provide information about compensation, terms and conditions, and hiring.

The Home Office says that while such information is used to assess the employer, interviewees are protected and details are not routinely disclosed.

Fizza Qureshi, chief executive of Migrants’ Rights Network, said the interior ministry’s disclosure of confidential details was “irresponsible” and showed “utter disregard” for the welfare of workers already vulnerable to exploitation.

She said: “Migrant workers are threatened with deportation and forced into debt bondage, or in some cases modern slavery. It is very worrying to see how this guest worker has been treated.”

Aké Achi, an anti-trafficking activist and founder of Migrants at Work, said that by releasing the victim’s details, “the Interior Ministry has not only tipped off the employer, which could harm any possible investigation,” but also the victim “at the mercy of the perpetrators”. He said he knew several workers who had been forced to pay illegal fees but were afraid to speak out because they feared repercussions.

Last year one Observer Investigations revealed that healthcare workers recruited from overseas to help fill vacancies in Britain were charged illegal fees and forced to work under exploitative conditions to pay off their debts. Some had their salaries withheld or their IDs withheld until they paid, but feared repercussions if they spoke out.

Related: Revealed: Migrant care workers in Britain charged thousands of illegal recruitment fees

The Home Office said it could not comment on ongoing investigations or individual cases, but that the disclosure of details of an employee’s comments “would not happen routinely”.

A spokesperson said: “We routinely conduct checks on sponsorship licensees as part of our compliance obligations and take strong action when evidence of labor exploitation is identified.

“Sponsors are aware of which employees have been spoken to and employees have been informed that the content of the interview may be made available to sponsors. However, disclosure of which employee made specific comments does not routinely occur if the employee makes specific sensitive statements related to criminal matters.”

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