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

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 gangmasters themselves?

  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 agency.

  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 any.

  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, unsatisfactory—putting it mildly—ways 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 agriculture.

  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 patch"?

  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—

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