Ed Bedington asks why abuse of the gangmaster system is tolerated
Imagine yourself far from home, forced to work for next to nothing, living and working in dangerous conditions, and often under the threat of violence and intimidation. The issue of exploited labour is not one confined to the developing world, it is a problem in the UK ­ quite possibly in a field near you.
As one industry insider puts it, to spot it, you just have to head out into the countryside and look for the battered mini-buses transporting the illegal immigrants to work in the fields.
Actual figures are difficult to quantify because no-one has got to grips with the problem, but most are agreed that significant numbers are smuggled into the country to work for a pittance in our fields, to pick the fresh produce found in supermarkets.
These immigrants are victims of the abuse of the UK's gangmaster system ­ under which individuals or companies are contracted to supply labour to farms and packhouses around the UK. With virtually no regulation, the system, like the immigrants, is easily exploited. The lack of regulation and, it could be said, lack of determination by both the government and the industry to really tackle the issue, means the gangmasters are allowed almost a free reign to pursue their agenda.
"It's not slavery as we know it in history, but it's not far removed," says Dan Pollard, an expert on the abuses of the UK gangmaster system for the Transport and General Workers Union. "The workers arrive in an illegal manner and it opens them up to exploitation."
Pollard says many workers are charged large sums simply to be smuggled into the UK, then, once here, they are forced to work to pay off their debts. "They're given sub-standard accommodation and charged excessive rates. They're charged for their transport to and from the place of work, often in illegal unsafe vehicles and face further deductions for clothing and equipment needed for work."
As well as supplying illegal immigrants, the gangmasters will also collude with benefit claimants so their earnings don't affect their claims.
While there are plenty of legitimate labour providers, some would say they are outweighed by the not-so upstanding operators. As Zad Padda, a legitimate gangmaster, puts it: "It's a legal industry, but the majority of companies involved are doing it in an illegal manner."
Dan Rees, of the Ethical Trading Initiative, says:"It is a dire situation. The food industry is implicated in organised crime ­ forgery and the human trafficking industry." The ETI, made up of members from across the fresh produce and retail sectors, is one of many involved in the fight against the problem. Safeway is a member and Gavin Bailey, head of policy strategy, says it is working through the ETI to try to find solutions to the situation. "We have organised seminars with our suppliers to help them deal with the problem," he says.
But it is an emotive issue across the industry and many are reluctant to discuss the problem, particularly suppliers. Cynics might suggest suppliers and retailers turn a blind eye, however that is something everyone involved denies. As Bailey says: "We don't want exploitation anywhere in our supply chain, anywhere in the world."
And from the supplier perspective, the risk of being caught out would pose serious difficulties, as the NFU's David Brown points out. "The worst thing a grower can do is fail to fulfil an order for the multiples. So if they are raided and half their workers scarper that's terrible. They've enough to worry about without that." However, not everyone is convinced. Padda runs a gangmaster operation in the Midlands called Fusion. He says: "I think what we can say is that it's impossible for this industry to work in such an illegal fashion without collusion between the gangmasters and farmers and packers."
And the industry is becoming more adept at providing the necessary paperwork, from forged legal documents to passports and in many cases farmers cannot spot the difference. "The criminals are becoming more and more sophisticated," says Brown.
Doug Henderson, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium, says: "The packers are not turning a blind eye to this but the documents they're presented with are very skilled forgeries."
There is a real desire throughout the industry to clean up its act, and it is looking to the government to lend a hand. Its Operation Gangmaster ­ a cross-department initiative targeting all criminal aspects of the gangmaster system, from illegal labour to benefit fraud and VAT fraud ­ is its key weapon.

Gangmaster prosecutions
"We recently switched the focus from those employed to the gangmasters," says the operations manager, Dave Jackson. "It's not 007 James Bond, but there's a high level of criminality involved."
Operation Gangmaster has conducted visits and raids and has a policy of educating employers to crack down on the problem. Jackson says it is getting good support. "People are onboard because it doesn't do their business any good if we go along and find out that they have 300 illegal immigrants working for them."
So far, the operation has managed to prosecute 63 gangmasters for VAT offences, but whether that's had any impact remains to be seen, as Jackson admits. "As soon as one is dethroned, another will take his place."
However, the government is keen to continue the operation. Malcolm Wicks, anti-fraud minister, says "I think we're beginning to turn the tide and win the war. There's obviously more to do but Operation Gangmaster is effective."
The industry itself has also attempted to resolve the situation with the creation of codes of conduct ­ the NFU drawing up one for farmers and the FPC is creating one for packhouses, but they are voluntary and, in effect, toothless.
The FPC's Henderson says the codes were a help but not a solution. "We feel we've gone as far as we can go with voluntary codes of practice and now need primary legislation that can be properly enforced."
Henderson says he echoes the entire industry in calling for a registration or licensing scheme for the gangmaster system. The NFU's Brown adds: "We need registration to give people the confidence that the labour they're getting is legitimate."
However the chances of achieving legislation look slim. Anti-fraud minister Wicks says they had considered the idea in 1997 but there were drawbacks. But he insists they are open-minded for the future.
But perhaps there is another way to tackle this issue, which has been caused by a labour shortage.
As the NFU's Brown says: "There are serious labour supply problems, particularly in the main growing areas like the south-east. We don't have a proper migrant labour scheme in this country and we need a grown-up decision on that issue."
However, that almost sounds too easy. The industry seems content to sit back and wait for the politicians to act, and while worthy efforts by the ETI put pressure on government, perhaps the industry should make more of an effort ­ it is, after all, benefiting from the criminals' behaviour.