Social care workers who have moved to the UK explain how working here differs from their native countries

When Canadian Lindsey Brooks started working in the UK’s social care sector three years ago, one of the most startling differences she noticed was the lack of respect often shown to care workers. “Many clients are really hard on care workers; they belittle you and treat you quite poorly,” says Brooks, a client relationship manager for HomeTouch. “I think many clients view care workers as a personal housekeeper and that’s just not what they’re there for.”

Care workers are better respected in Canada, Brooks believes, because they’re better paid and because of the country’s reputation of having one of the world’s best healthcare systems. “If you’re lucky enough to have a caregiver that you get on with, people consider that a privilege.”

In the UK, the social care industry is heavily reliant on foreign workers. From Canadians to Nigerians, citizens from around the world account for 20% of the 1.6 million people employed in the sector. But working in the crisis-stricken sector, which is coming under increasing pressure as the UK readies to leave the EU, can be quite a different experience from at home.

Marlyn Ramos, who worked as a nurse in the Philippines and in the UK before joining the care sector, feels that she has much more freedom of speech here compared to her home country. “You can talk to the GPs, doctors – any medical professional – without hesitation about your suggestions or observations,” she says. “In the Philippines, if a doctor tells you to do something, you do it.”

It’s much easier to find a health and social care job in the UK too, says Ramos. In the Philippines, thousands of people graduate every year with the right qualifications, but a shortage of hospitals and care homes means that competition is high. “Many nurses and care workers prefer to work abroad, even if it means being away from their families. The exodus is so high,” says Ramos, now a homecare worker with app-based Cera. “Employment in the UK is excellent – anyone can get a job if they’re determined to find one.”

For Sanna Laaksonen, it’s been easier to get a permanent contract in the UK, but in her first care home job in the UK she earned much less than in her native Finland. There are also more policies and procedures to follow. “In the beginning it was a shock,” says Laaksonen, who now works as a dementia care manager at Royal Star and Garter Homes. “In Finland, we were allowed to lift people and would help residents to have a shower or a sauna, so it was very different in the UK to have to give someone a wash with flannels.”

With staff shortages affecting the social care sector across the board, stress levels for remaining workers are an increasing concern.

“Everyone is under pressure because of the ageing population and the low staffing conditions. The workers are stressed and their work performance is affected,” says Sandy Maher. Originally from Ireland, she trained and worked in a care home in Australia before moving to the UK in 2015. “In Australia, there were plenty of staff; kitchen workers and care workers did their separate tasks and the nurses were highly respected. In my experience, things are much worse here in the UK, especially in the hospitals. I don’t ever remember care workers being under so much pressure in Ireland or Australia,” says Maher, who also works for HomeTouch.

Staff shortages are also a concern for Felicia Imafidon, manager of Norton House care home, who moved to London from Nigeria 22 years ago. “It’s difficult to recruit qualified care staff these days. It’s time-consuming to even get the candidates to attend the interview, and then sometimes they will turn down an offer at the last minute. That’s very disappointing.”

Managing a multicultural workforce, including staff from Italy and Poland, Imafidon is worried that Brexit will exacerbate these problems. “We struggle to recruit candidates in health and social care as it is – I think Brexit will add to the dilemmas.”

“If Brexit brings many changes, the UK will be a less appealing place to be. I am sad about this because I have just moved here, I am close to my family and there is a world of opportunities in care in the UK,” says Maher. “I have considered going back to Australia where the care sector has more funding and fewer issues. But if everyone thought like this we would all be leaving, so I will try to stay positive and not give up on the UK just yet.”

This article first appeared on the Guardian on 15 August 2017. 

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