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All nursing staff deserve to be treated fairly and with respect. That’s obvious, right? So why isn’t it happening?  

For many years I’ve seen how some overseas nurses are treated. Back in the early 2000s when I was a lead steward in my trust, the UK government opened its doors wide to international recruitment. The RCN was keen to encourage internationally recruited nurses to join the organisation, so I made a point of meeting these nurses. I wanted to make sure they were OK.

They came from all over the world, bringing with them a wealth of experience, education and knowledge. But they faced a culture shock.   

They felt distressed. Many were desperate to leave

They’d put their trust in the recruitment agencies they’d used. At the time there were so many agencies, but sadly some were dishonest, using false letters of appointment to lure staff here. These nurses were paying money, signing forms and then finding out they owed more.  

One nurse I met thought she had an appointment letter from an NHS trust, given to her by an agency. She signed the contract and paid their fees. But it was a scam. They’d copied someone else’s letter and inserted her name.  

When she arrived in the UK, she phoned the trust to get her start date, only to be told that they didn’t know what she was talking about. In a state of shock she paid for a taxi to go there in person to show them her letter. She was told that she didn’t have a job.

Can you imagine how worried this nurse must have felt? She ended up working in a care home where the owner didn’t question her agency documentation. They just wanted someone to do the job. This was 20 years ago but the incident remains clear in my mind.

Many of these nurses weren’t members of the RCN or any union and didn’t know where to turn.

Tackling exploitation and racism now 

I know that the exploitation I witnessed all those years ago is not confined to history (see below: Here’s how we’re fighting back), and it’s important that we act now to address it.  

We can encourage people to embrace differences and stand up against the blatant racism that some overseas nurses face.   

As a student I encountered racism and this gave me the confidence to advise my colleagues back then, and now, how to counter it. I wasn’t an internationally recruited nurse, but I was picked on because of how I dressed. I remember being called into the senior manager’s office and told to dress in a more English manner. I was shocked and told them I was dressing in an acceptable and modest way.   

Even now, in fact especially now, I am completely fed up with people telling me that I speak good English. People can be very quick to make assumptions.   

Standing up for all nursing staff  

I am confident and will stand up for myself but that’s not the case for everyone. The RCN and all nursing staff must continue to call out unethical recruitment and racism.

Internationally trained nursing staff must have the same access to continuing professional development as their colleagues, and be supported to enhance their knowledge and skills during their employment. Anything less is unacceptable.   

We can encourage people to embrace differences

We need to remember the human side too. These nursing staff are educated professionals who are looking to improve their skills and widen their experiences, but many also arrive to the UK alone. They’re often missing their families, who can’t travel with them. They don’t know when they will see them next.   

Don’t you think we just need to embrace their experience and skills and welcome them just a little bit more by demanding they’re treated fairly? 

At RCN Congress, Zeba Arif proposed a debate about ethical recruitment, encouraging the RCN to lobby employers to treat overseas nursing staff fairly.

Here’s how we’re fighting back 

Overseas nursing staff face 'bullying tactics' and unfair fees from some employers when trying to leave their jobs  

Twenty years on, we know that international nurses are still facing unethical recruitment practices. We’ve become increasingly concerned about a rise in internationally recruited nurses reporting that they are being asked by their employers to repay excessive penalty fines (as high as £14,000) where they choose to leave their employment before a defined period of time.

These types of excessive penalty clauses mean that staff may be pressured to remain in employment situations they would otherwise prefer to leave and go on to experience bullying, harassment and threats from rogue employers. The RCN is working hard to fight for fair terms and conditions for all our members, and challenge these fees. 

Read more in 'Some nurses are effectively working for free’.

Read Working and coming to work in the UK.

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