Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)
Wednesday 21 May 2003
Mr Peter Allenson, and
Mr Don Pollard
Q140 Mr Lepper: It looks as if what
is needed is not just the ability to take legal action against
individuals, which presumably already exists, if it involves fraud
or physical violence, but some mechanism for dealing with the
operation of which those individuals are a part?
Mr Pollard: That is the point
that most people make, that most of these abuses are crimes anyway
and therefore why do we not just enforce the law. I would not
go too far to say that it is similar to the Mafia situations where
you not only have to look at the crime, you have to look at the
organisation behind the crime, and I think that is the situation
with the gangmasters.
Q141 Mr Lepper: It is a question
of there being links between particular gangmaster companies,
if I can call them that. You have used the term "Mafia".
Mr Pollard: Yes. Links between
them and who?
Q142 Mr Lepper: Between the various
Mr Pollard: Again, I am not quite
sure what you mean by links.
Q143 Mr Lepper: When you use the
term Mafia, you are suggesting there is a network.
Mr Pollard: The network tends
to be more with criminal elements in Eastern Europe and gangmasters
in this country. I think they are trying to cut each other's throats.
Q144 Mr Lepper: Okay. That is what
I was getting at, thank you. In your Union's report about Sussex
you mention, among other organisations, the Brighton based Phoenix
Mr Pollard: Yes.
Q145 Mr Lepper: You then do not say
any more about that particular one, although you do about some
of the other agencies. I wonder if you have further information
about that particular agency?
Mr Pollard: The only information
I have about that is they are not only operating in the agricultural
industry in Sussex but also in London in the catering side. I
did not talk to that particular agency.
Q146 Mr Lepper: Are you aware of
any action that has ever been needed against that agency?
Mr Pollard: I am not aware of
Q147 Mr Lepper: One final thing.
We have talked about the issue of recruitment in Eastern Europe
and overseas. What sorts of recruitment processes work in this
country? We can see what the inducements are for workers in parts
of Eastern Europe to come here. What is the ploy that gangmasters
use when they are recruiting in this country? Are there not any,
is it just people being signed up to do a particular job?
Mr Pollard: In this country they
can go through the legal channels. They advertise in newspapers,
they advertise in jobcentres, they advertise on the net, so they
go through the normal procedure, plus the fact that people in
rural areas tend to know where there is work and where there is
not work so it goes by word of mouth as well.
Mr Allenson: Chairman, perhaps
I could just add in to that. I dealt with East Anglia for a number
of years in the Cambridgeshire area and between West Norfolk,
South Lincolnshire and North Cambridgeshire there are a tremendous
number of vegetable produce packing facilities in that area largely
staffed, in many respects, by gang labour. The word is spread
around by word of mouth, very often by family members within the
gang, and I was just thinking in terms of intimidation of people,
the gangmaster system has evolved over a period of time in that
many years ago the intimidation that used to take place was not
necessarily physical, very often it was verbal. It was on the
basis that very often rural workers, who had to have transport
to find their way to work, if they did in fact challenge the gangmaster
on a particular day about deductions from pay, working arrangements
or whatever, they would not be collected the following morning,
it was that kind of intimidation which took place. Now we have
moved further than that, as my colleague has said, there are criminal
elements which seem to have got involved in the situation. Much
of the evidence is anecdotal, as you have found yourselves as
a Committee, but if you look back at the press and media coverage
over a period of time there have been well documented examples
of the abuse that has taken place, not just in agriculture but
of course in first stage food processing, whether it be fish,
poultry processing or whatever, certainly it is taking place.
Q148 Patrick Hall: I would like to
ask both of you if you could provide us with an overview of this
practice because what we have heard so far is the emphasis on
the unscrupulous sides of the business but I am getting the feeling
that perhaps the very nature of the business lends itself to dodgy,
unsatisfactoryputting it mildlyways of treating
people. Do you think there is something inherently unsavoury and
unsatisfactory about this way of working, although clearly companies
can operate legally in this country in this way?
Mr Pollard: If you look at the
historical development of the gangmaster system, it goes right
back to the 19th century and the whole word "gangmaster"
relates not to criminal elements but a group of people, a gang
of people, who often were recruited in a local pub or local village
to work in a farm. That system of providing labour where it was
needed at crucial times of the year for farmers was an essential
part of agriculture really, and it still is an essential part
of agriculture. Agriculture and horticulture would not be able
to operate properly if they did not have some system of temporary
labour, even more so now, of course, when UK workers do not tend
to want to do that work. The system from the very beginning had
elements of abuse in it, but they tended to be localised and minor.
What has happened since the mid 1980s, as there has been an expansion
in horticulture and the size of companies in horticulture, the
problem has got far worse. I think I will pick up the point that
Peter raised as well, the good side of it is that it provides
a source of labour, particularly for women and young people who
have not got transport. It provides an income for, again, women
and young people especially around piecework where they can earn
a reasonable amount.
Q149 Patrick Hall: Low paid then?
Mr Pollard: I have to assume anything
in agriculture is low paid.
Q150 Patrick Hall: It is not just
Mr Pollard: Yes, that is true.
The system itself has had problems right from its very inception
but these have got far worse since the mid 1980s as we get more
demand for labour from packhouses and farms.
Mr Allenson: If I could add to
that. I think in approximately the 1940s when there was registration,
but through the local magistrates at that time, one could only
assume that if in fact registration was necessary at that point
in time then presumably it was felt it was necessary for a reason.
I think in terms of what we are trying to do and why we are keen
to push forward the need for legislation is that from our perspective
you can almost use the Agricultural Wages Board analogy in that
you have a minimum set of standards which need to be enforced
and there is a rate of pay below which no employer can pay below
and, therefore, the reasonable employer is given some encouragement
in those circumstances. We believe the registration system would
do just that in this particular situation, it would give the reasonable
gangmaster, of which there are some, the opportunity to thrive
in a business which will treat people fairly and with respect.
Q151 Mr Lazarowicz: The research
which the union has done has been on the East Anglia area element
and Sussex. Have you any information from the union about the
position elsewhere in the UK to give us an idea of how widespread
the problem is throughout the country?
Mr Pollard: There was a third
report on the Vale of Evesham, it dealt with the gangmasters from
the Birmingham area. The first report was on East Anglia, West
Norfolk and Lincolnshire, the second report was on Sussex and
the third report was on the Vale of Evesham.
Q152 Mr Lazarowicz: Does it tell
us anything about the position elsewhere, what the picture is
across the UK of how widespread the problem is?
Mr Allenson: Perhaps I can try
and answer that. We have not been able to bring together a report,
as Don has done in those particular areas. I have been appointed
as National Secretary for some eight months, so it is a relatively
new appointment. During that period of time I have had examples
which have appeared in the local press as far away as Scotland
where there is a particularly large fruit operation, and indeed
in the Southport area where in fact there was local press coverage
about the use of gang labour and the abuses which were taking
place at that time. That was not just in agriculture or, indeed,
in food processing, it stepped outside into plastic manufacture
of goods. It is generally where there is unskilled work of some
kind where an employer perhaps cannot recruit locally because
the pay rates are not sufficient to recruit or retain local people.
Q153 Mr Jack: Can I just conclude
this point of questioning by saying I am assuming that your interest
as a trade union movement in this is out of concern about any
group of workers who are exploited, because clearly I would not
imagine you get too many recognition agreements.
Mr Allenson: No.
Q154 Mr Jack: As a union, do you
find yourself approached though for advice by individuals who
are having a difficult time and, if so, what do you do?
Mr Allenson: We do. We do find
that people approach us and we try and deal with those situations
as best we can for the individual, depending on the legal position
at that time. We have worked very closely, for example, with the
Portuguese Workers' Association to assist them to understand the
rights they have within this particular country. We are doing
some more work in the languages of the countries that are joining
the EU at the present time. It is very difficult because do feel
intimidated. They find it difficult to come forward for assistance
and find it even more difficult, once they know their rights,
sometimes challenging the employer, particularly if they are perhaps
working illegally in some way and have been party to that.
Q155 Mr Jack: As a union do you find
yourself on the receiving end of any kind of threatening activity
by inappropriate illicit gangmasters saying "keep off my
Mr Allenson: As a local officer
in Cambridgeshire, there have been occasions when it has been
made absolutely plain to me that I should not take a particular
matter any further, not physical intimidation but just aggressive
behaviour on the part of an employer.
Mr Pollard: When I was doing my
research most of it was going out by myself, I had to be very
careful where I went because I was talking to gangmasters as well
as workers. If you talked to any workers in the fields, there
was usually somebody who came over fairly quickly and made inquiries
and indicated they did not want you to be around too long. It
is definitely a situation of concern about worker abuses because
we have a minuscule amount of membership of gangworkers, almost
all of them being UK workers, but nevertheless it is such a glaring
example of abuse of workers' rights that as a union involving
agricultural workers in rural areas we felt we were obliged to
take it up.
Q156 Mrs Shephard: Just a brief word
about intimidation. You described the kinds of intimidation that
there could have been in the past. Would you agree that where
we have got workers from other countries, whether or not they
are from EU countries, part of the intimidation is eviction? In
other words, they are provided with accommodation, the cost of
the accommodation is deducted from their wages, but have you come
across examples where if people step out of line they are evicted?
Mr Pollard: Usually if they are
evicted, the job is gone as well.
Q157 Mrs Shephard: Yes. Have you
come across that?
Mr Pollard: We have come across
that, yes. Certainly anybody who speaks out is dealt with fairly
quickly. An example is a woman worker in Norfolk, not necessarily
in your area, Mrs Shephard
Q158 Mrs Shephard: It could be.
Mr Pollard: She complained about
something at work and she was normally picked up on the side of
the road to go to work but after she made the complaint the van
went past her and that was the end.
Q159 Mrs Shephard: But eviction
Mr Pollard: Eviction from houses