Fraudsters exploit Zimbabweans seeking UK health and care jobs

Fraudsters exploit Zimbabweans seeking UK health and care jobs

By Farai Shawn Matiashe I Thomson Reuters Trust Principles

  • Zimbabwe’s economic crisis fuels migration
  • Professionals take ‘nurse aide’ courses to get UK care jobs
  • Criminals offer fake courses and sponsorship

HARARE – When Zimbabwean mother-of-four Eunice Sinoya enrolled in a first aid course near the capital Harare she was lured by the college’s promise of a job in Britain’s care sector.

But more than a year on, she is sitting at home with her dream in tatters, the victim of a fraud that has cost her thousands of dollars.

She is not alone. Police in Zimbabwe are investigating reports of dozens of scams that have exploited booming demand for basic healthcare qualifications, which are increasingly seen as a ticket to jobs overseas.

Sinoya, 45, said she sold family land to pay for bogus sponsorship and flights that never materialised while doing a course in Norton, 40 km west of Harare.

“I was promised they’d get me a sponsor who would take me to the UK. I didn’t suspect anything. I thought it was genuine,” she told Context.

Basic healthcare courses – known as nurse aide courses – have proliferated across the southern African country in recent years with local media describing them as “the new gold”.

Their popularity has been fuelled by Zimbabwe’s economic crisis coupled with high demand for health and care workers in countries like Britain, where there are massive staff shortages.

However, the scramble for nurse aide qualifications has also given con artists an opportunity to cash in.

A police source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some victims had been tricked into paying for bogus courses or fake certificates while others, like Sinoya, were duped into spending huge sums with false promises of jobs in Britain.

Most frauds have been reported in Harare and Zimbabwe’s second-biggest city Bulawayo in the southwest.

Nurse aide courses used to attract people with few qualifications. But students now also include lawyers, bank staff, business people, teachers and other professionals desperate to escape crippling inflation, dwindling opportunities, a rapidly depreciating currency and high unemployment.

A trainer at one school run by the Red Cross said some courses had 200 students, with numbers having quadrupled in recent years.

A sign at a Red Cross centre advertises its popular nurse aide courses in Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe. January 5, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Farai Shawn Matiashe
A sign at a Red Cross centre advertises its popular nurse aide courses in Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe. January 5, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Farai Shawn Matiashe

Britain seeks carers

Demand for places intensified in 2022 after Britain opened up a new visa route for overseas workers to help fill more than 160,000 vacancies in the care sector following the COVID-19 pandemic and Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Britain granted 21,130 Zimbabweans health and care worker visas in the year up to September 2023, up from 7,846 the preceding year and 915 the year before, according to official data.

An overseas carer in Britain earns a minimum 20,960 pounds a year ($26,650) – a low wage given the high cost of living, but more than 10 times what many teachers in Zimbabwe earn.

Those taking nurse aide courses even include some professional nurses seeking to bypass government attempts to stop them migrating.

Nurses in Zimbabwe say the government – worried about a medical brain drain – is blocking them from taking nursing jobs overseas by withholding documents required by employers.

“These bottlenecks … are forcing nurses to opt to train as nurse aides so they can go abroad to work as carers or healthcare assistants instead,” said Simbarashe Tafirenyika, president of Zimbabwe Urban and Rural Council Nurses Workers Union.

A care home worker serves a meal to a resident at a care home in south London, Britain, July 29, 2023. REUTERS/Hollie Adams
A care home worker serves a meal to a resident at a care home in south London, Britain, July 29, 2023. REUTERS/Hollie Adams

Scams exploit desparation

Nurse aide courses have long been offered by organisations like the Red Cross and St John Ambulance but recently many small institutes have sprung up across Zimbabwe to meet rising demand. Charges range from about $100 to $400.

The college Sinoya enrolled in – Platinum Home Healthcare Services – was set up in 2018 according to its website which features photos of smiling graduates and testimonials from past students.

“The college called it a crash programme where they would be teaching us about what is needed in the UK,” she said.

“I graduated at a colourful event along with other students. I was so happy. I couldn’t wait.”

The fact Platinum advertised free sponsorship had attracted many people like her, she said. Carers seeking jobs in Britain must find an employer – also known as a sponsor – before they can get a visa.

As part of the process, carers may have to pay some charges to fulfil requirements for employment.

Once enrolled on the course, Sinoya was asked for payments totalling $4,500. These included legitimate charges for an English language test, TB test and police background check, but also payments for flights and $2,000 for unexplained “consultation fees”.

“I had to sell family land for $6,000 so that I could pay the college,” Sinoya said.

“I asked, ‘When am I leaving for the UK?’ But no one responded. I later learned I’d been scammed – the woman running the college was bogus and on the run for duping many people.”

Sinoya estimated dozens of classmates had been swindled and said the case had been reported to police.

A Platinum staff member, who declined to give her name, said there had been a problem with a former director, but the college did not know her whereabouts.

“I can confirm that we had such an issue. She was one of our directors,” said the staff member. “She is no longer working with us.”

The staff member said the college would not refund the women as it was not responsible for their losses. She added that Platinum was still running courses, but no longer offered to arrange jobs overseas.

Context tried to reach the former director, but the phone number appeared out of service.

Police declined to comment on the case.

Sinoya, who used to work as a part-time domestic worker, is now unemployed and has moved into a shabby rental with no electricity or water.

“I’ve had more than a year of stress trying to recover my money,” she said. “I’m renting a house that’s not suitable for kids. I’m struggling to put food on the table.”

Sinoya is not the only one ruing the day she ever set foot in the college.

Another former student, who asked not to be named, sold her car to cover what she thought were legitimate relocation charges.

“They said they had a care home to employ me and others in the UK. They promised that in two months I would be in the UK,” said the 52-year-old unemployed woman.

“In total, I parted with $4,000 of my hard-earned cash. Relatives also chipped in.”

But she did not even come away with a certificate – with her suspicions growing, she refused to pay the $115 “graduation fee”.

“Everything about life is now hard,” she said. “All hopes of relocating are gone.”