The problem with Scientology’s UK visa sponsor status

Following a 2023 court ruling in which their buildings were designated ‘places of public worship’, the Church of Scientology have been granted “A-rate” visa sponsorship powers by the UK government and last year, issued 21 ‘Minister of Religion’ and ‘Religious Worker’ visas.

Despite the Charity Commission ruling it “does not benefit the public”, Scientology was granted partial tax exemption last year after a ten-year legal battle with HM Revenue and Customs, paving the way for an application to the Home Office for visa sponsorship powers as an “excepted charity.”

A Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Scientology Business reveals that following its application, the organisation was added to the government’s ‘Register of Licensed Sponsors’ and given the authority to sponsor worker and temporary worker visas. It subsequently issued 21 ‘Certificates of Sponsorship’ under its new status.

According to Scientology, its workers are considered ‘religious volunteers’ and as such do not receive a salary or payment for their contributions. Instead, staff members receive a weekly allowance of £50, described as “pocket money” in the employment contract. However unlike volunteers at a food bank or homeless shelter, staff are given job titles and responsibilities and are expected to work full time, which presents more than a minor a problem for the group when it comes to UK labour laws.

Workers in the United Kingdom have the right to be paid a minimum hourly rate under The National Minimum Wage Act 1998, with current rate set at £10.42 per hour for workers over the age of 23. Volunteers are exempt, according to the government’s website, which explains “you’re classed as doing voluntary work if you can only get certain limited benefits (for example reasonable travel or lunch expenses) and you’re working for a charity, voluntary organisation or associated fundraising body or a statutory body”. Scientology was rejected by the Charity Commission in 1999 and as such would not be considered a voluntary organisation.

Guidelines state that “a person’s employment status is governed largely by his contractual relations, or absence thereof, with an employer” and that “volunteers who receive expenses, benefits in kind, and/or subsistence payments” are considered workers. It continues, “if a “volunteer” is under an obligation to work, then he is, in fact, a “worker” and entitled to the National Minimum Wage”.

Although the one billion year Sea Org contract would not be enforceable in a court of law, staff members are also required to sign 2.5 or 5 year agreements which include sick pay and holiday entitlement clauses; and according to their most recent accounts, Scientology spent £1.47 million ($1.86 million USD) on “staff allowances” in the United Kingdom in 2022.

In the same year, the minimum wage was set at £9.50 an hour, meaning a full-time employee working 40 hours a week was entitled to be paid an annual wage of least £19,760. Using simple maths we can therefore determine that if Scientology was complying with minimum wage legislation, its entire UK operation was run by no more than 74 staff members.

However, in its filings the Church also stated it had no full time, part time or casual employees but instead reported an estimated 700 volunteers working for the organisation. According to the 2021 census, the UK is home to 1,854 Scientologists which indicates if this figure is true, 37% of its parishioners work for the Church in some capacity.

If Scientology were paying 700 full time workers the minimum wage, their total expenditure on staff allowances would be over £15 million ($19 million USD), which is more than their reported annual turnover and does not factor in additional costs such as tax and National Insurance contributions.

In a video on its leader David Miscavige’s website, an executive mentions there are 400 staff members working at their Saint Hill headquarters near East Grinstead, Sussex. This suggests a cohort of workers with roles and responsibilities, rather than volunteers carrying no obligation to work.

So either Scientology is paying its staff the minimum wage, as required by law, and has publicly lied about the size of its workforce; or Scientology employs more than 74 staff but are in fact, paying less than the minimum wage… But which is it?

Organisations that sponsor Religious Worker visas are required to pay immigrants at least the minimum wage, which in 2023 was set at £10.42 an hour (or £21,673 per year). Considering Scientology sponsored 21 such visas last year, their annual expenditure on staff allowances should increase by at least £455,000 ($574,000 USD).

The question is.. will this be reflected in their 2023 accounts when they are published later this year?

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Alexander Barnes-Ross

Scientology Business provides analysis and commentary on the Church of Scientology's corporate structure, business operations and functions in the United Kingdom and Europe. The website looks at Scientology's shell companies, financial records and maps the web of international corporate entities responsible for their UK and European activities.

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