Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Rural Agricultural & Allied National Trade Group of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU)


  The T&GWU is the UK largest food union with over 100,000 members in Food & Agriculture. It is the only agricultural trade union in the UK. Through the Rural Agricultural & Allied Workers Trade Group we represent people working directly in agriculture and through to in particular first stage food processing ie vegetable pre-packing, poultry slaughter and processing, where increasingly we see Gangmasters being used to supply not only seasonal fluctuations in labour but to very often supply core labour due to difficulties in employers recruiting and retaining staff. The TGWU's objective is to ensure that staff are treated fairly equally whether directly employed or employed by Gangmasters.


  The Gangmaster system of employment has been used in certain parts of the country for many years. In East Anglia we have evidence of it being prevalent in agriculture itself in the 1940s and at that stage a simple registration system was in place through the Local Magistrates. The advantage to the farmer/grower was that he believed he was relieved of his legal responsibility for that labour which then rested with the Gangmaster. However, it is quite clear that Gangmasters often didn't comply and the necessary paperwork relating to contracts of employment etc did not exist.

  Right through until the late 70s, the Gangmaster would usually employ people on a local basis and be known locally and to that extent have a degree of responsibility. However, in the early 1980s people from areas of high unemployment were transported on a daily basis to work in the fields and the pre-packing factories situated close by. Vegetable processing at this time became a year round activity supplying and servicing the ever increasing demands of the Supermarkets and home grown produce being supplemented with produce from abroad.

  More recently migrant workers have been used, some legally and some illegally. Quite clearly in the latter case their bargaining position with the Gangmaster is negligible. This does and has led to resentment locally not necessarily through jobs being lost but sometimes because the directly employed labour feel that their wages rates and conditions of employment are being held back because of the supply of incoming labour from Gangmasters. There have been various codes of practice implemented by various segments of the industry. However, all have failed due to their voluntary nature and the type of people involved as Gangmasters who are unlikely to change their ways because of a voluntary code with no teeth.


  A recent estimate which has so far gone unchallenged indicates that some 20,000 people are employed annually by Gangmasters between Boston in Lincolnshire and Spalding in Lincolnshire, a distance of some 16 miles. Additionally, between Spalding in Lincolnshire and Ely in North Cambridgeshire, it is estimated that a further 20,000 people are employed by Gangmasters alone. This gives an indication of the size of the problem but it is now quite clearly a problem on a national scale.


  We do not intend to reproduce the extensive material that is now available documenting the abuses and how this system has developed. However, we would like to refer you to some good pieces of work which has already been done as follows:

    (1)  The AIT Report for the Fresh Produce Consortium (hard copy available on request).

    (2)  Review of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers' Scheme.

    (3)  Registration of Gangmasters—TGWU.

    (4)  Report of UK Survey on Gangmasters Labour for the European Federation of Agricultural Workers Unions (EFA).

    (5)  Gangmaster System in Sussex—August, 2000.

    (6)  Sainsbury's Gangmaster Conference—29 January 2001.

    (7)  Gangmasters Birmingham/Eversham—Jan/Feb 2001


  The T&GWU has firmly believed for some time now that registration of Gangmasters with the appropriate sanctions for non-compliance is absolutely essential if the abuses listed are to be prevented. The exact detail of a registration scheme is presently under discussion in a working group convened by the Ethical Trading Initiative aimed at addressing labour conditions for seasonal and foreign labour in the UK food industry. The remarkable thing which should not be under-estimated in this initiative is that it brings together the trade unions, the growers and the retailers all with the objective of statutory registration. In our experience it is rare to find such an approach to issues of regulation. Any such registration scheme must have the support of all the stakeholders involved ie trade unions, growers and retailers. Must be monitored and reviewed and have the ability to carry appropriate sanctions if the conditions are not met. The scheme must create the conditions in which reasonable Gangmasters can survive and flourish and not be drawn down to the levels of others in order to compete. Interestingly any such scheme is likely to concentrate on getting people to meet the minimum standards required by law ie the national minimum wage, remitting national insurance and tax deducted and a very useful by product for government would be a improved collection of monies due from taxation etc and also the eradication of benefit fraud.

  Any such scheme should be robust because from our experience of the people involved in this area of work ie Gangmasters themselves, they are prepared and will go to extreme lengths to avoid their responsibilities up to and including physical intimidation.

25 April 2003

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