>>tackling abuse of agricultural workers - Paul Whitehouse, chairman of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority

So gangmasters in agriculture are to be licensed - isn’t this simply another piece of government meddling and a gut reaction to the tragedy of the cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay in February 2004?
Actually, it’s the result of a genuine team effort by all the players in the fresh produce industry to prevent the exploitation of workers by unscrupulous middlemen and prevent those same middlemen cheating the public by not paying their taxes.
Jim Sheridan MP introduced the original Gangmasters Licensing Authority Bill as a Private Member’s measure before the Morecambe Bay tragedy. It stemmed from growing concerns about the way temporary (mainly migrant) labour in this country was being treated. The deaths of the cocklers meant the bill was rewritten to include shellfishing and given all-party support.
What is a gangmaster, anyway? Gangmasters have been around since the 19th century, when there were insufficient people available to bring in the harvest. They exist today as entirely legitimate employment businesses - some of them household names. Unfortunately, many only become household names when they are convicted of ill-treating their workers. The licensing scheme aims to drive these crooks out of business and allow genuine employment businesses a chance to make a living while treating their workers properly.
The Grabiner Report on the Hidden Economy [HM Treasury, March 2000] set out the steps that needed to be taken to bring more economic activity into the open. For example, a gangmaster who employs 10 workers throughout the year for 40 hours a week at the national minimum wage should charge more than £13,000 in VAT. He should also be collecting national insurance contributions and income tax from his workers. If he doesn’t pay these to the tax authorities, it is a direct loss to the public.
Fortunately the industry has not stood still while the legislative mills grind on. All those involved, from grower to retailer, set up the Temporary Labour Working Group (TLWG) under the auspices of the Ethical Trading Initiative. The result was a code of practice for labour providers endorsed by the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, to which all the players subscribed. Full details of the code are available at www.lpcode.co.uk.
Earlier this month, all of the major
supermarket chains agreed to require suppliers ensure that their labour providers register to comply with this code by the end of this month.
As the interest groups represented on the TLWG will have the majority on the board of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, it seems likely the TLWG’s code will serve as a basis for the authority’s licensing conditions. This means those labour providers who sign up will not only have a good idea that they are likely to be compliant with the licence, but their licence fee will be reduced to take account of this earlier audit.
The authority will start work in April, from offices in Nottingham. In the first few months, it will have to establish the licensing rules and work out the processes for dealing with licence applications. At present it
seems likely that applications will be invited towards the end of October and will need to be dealt with by August 2006. Then it will be an offence to act as a gangmaster without a licence, or to use the services of an unlicensed gangmaster, anywhere in the UK.
The Gangmasters Licensing Act is likely to apply to all employment businesses in agriculture, processing and packaging of fresh produce. The Association of Labour Providers is a good source of information for anyone not sure of their responsibilities.
The British retail industry is rightly proud of the service it provides. It is now demonstrating it is determined to deliver that service without exploiting workers or the public. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority looks forward to helping it achieve that aim.