Care workers were interviewed by Home Office officers as part of an investigation into illegal recruitment practices. Photograph: JohnnyGreig/Alamy
Zimbabwean worker whose visa relies on job says government disclosed confidential details of interview to employer
A victim of suspected labour abuse who confidentially disclosed details of exploitation to government investigators says she has been subjected to threats and intimidation after she was outed to her employer.
The Zimbabwean national, 25, was interviewed by Home Office compliance officers for an investigation into illegal recruitment practices and told them she had paid a fee of about £1,500 to an agent who arranged for a care home in Surrey to sponsor her visa.
It is illegal to charge a worker a fee for finding them work and the government has pledged to stop the practice, which can leave victims at risk of modern slavery.
The worker, who was interviewed with several colleagues, claims she was given assurances by the interviewer that her identity would not be disclosed. But days after the interview, she was contacted by her employer asking why she had cooperated. The care home had been sent her name and details of her comments, including the claims about abusive practices and the illegal fees, according to documents seen 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 investigation, and accused of misconduct in an appraisal. Her visa is reliant on her job with the company, meaning she might 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 quiet. We didn’t know the agent was not entitled to charge us that money, so I thought the Home Office would see me as a victim. Instead, they have exposed me to intimidation and threats from my employer.”
Migrants’ rights groups said the case raised concerns about safeguards for whistleblowers who comply with government investigations, many of whom have precarious work or visa situations. Workers are often interviewed as part of compliance checks on companies that sponsor licences and are asked to provide information about pay, conditions and recruitment.
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 disclosure of confidential details by the Home Office was “irresponsible” and showed “total disregard” for the welfare of workers who were already vulnerable to exploitation.
She said: “Migrant workers are subjected to threats of deportation and are forced into debt bondage, or in some cases, modern slavery. It’s deeply concerning to see how this migrant worker has been treated.”
Aké Achi, an anti-human-trafficking activist and founder of Migrants at Work, said that by releasing the details of the victim, “the Home Office not only tipped off the employer, which could prejudice any potential investigation”, but also put the victim “at the mercy of the perpetrators”. He said he knew of several workers who had been made to pay illegal fees but were frightened to speak out because they feared repercussions.
Last year, an Observer investigation found that care workers recruited from overseas to help fill vacancies in Britain were being charged illegal fees and forced to work in exploitative conditions to pay off their debts. Some had their salaries docked or ID documents withheld until they paid but feared repercussions if they spoke up.
The Home Office said it could not comment on active investigations or individual cases but that disclosure of details of comments by a worker would “not routinely occur”.
A spokesperson said: “We routinely undertake checks on Sponsor Licence Holders as part of our compliance duties and take robust action where evidence of labour exploitation is identified.
“Sponsors are aware of which workers have been spoken to and workers are informed that the contents of the interview may be made available to sponsors. However, disclosure of which worker has made specific comments does not routinely occur if the worker makes specific sensitive statements relating to criminal matters.”