Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)
Wednesday 21 May 2003
Mr Peter Allenson, and
Mr Don Pollard
Q160 Mrs Shephard: is another
Mr Pollard: Yes.
Q161 Mrs Shephard: Can I just ask,
are you in touch with Citizens Advice Bureaux who have a wealth
of evidence and information which could help you?
Mr Pollard: Yes.
Mr Allenson: Can I just mention
my experience as a local officer in Cambridgeshire. Certainly
we were in touch with the CAB, they would refer people to us,
particularly on employment issues and we had a good working relationship
with them. What I found, again as a local officer, was the real
fear of people was firstly coming forward and then secondly being
able to act on the information that we were able to give them.
As a union we do continually want to see some of the divisiveness
taken out of this particular situation. There can obviously sometimes
be friction between the directly employed staff and the staff
who are coming in employed by gang labour for all sorts of reasons.
We are keen to see people treated fairly and equally and we believe
registration, again, would be a way of ensuring that is brought
forward. It would not be perfect. I dare say that some of the
people using and abusing the system will learn to manoeuvre in
particular ways but I think it would remove a great deal of the
unfairness that there is presently in the system.
Q162 Mr Jack: In the field of agriculture
and horticulture, the principal customer for many of the users
of gangmaster labour are supermarkets. Supermarkets, as you will
know, lay down very tight specifications for all of the activities
which are associated with the production of the products for sale
in their stores. The impression we get is that the form and use
of labour is not currently part of that overall specification.
Have you got any indication as to whether you think the supermarkets
take this as an area of importance and have had any influence
at all on the employment policies of those who are their suppliers?
Mr Pollard: I think they are taking
it seriously in so far as they accept it is a problem and in some
ways it is a publicity problem. If it comes out that one of the
supermarkets is using a supplier who uses illegal labour it goes
against the supermarket so, therefore, they are concerned about
it from that point of view. I think the point to be made is that
they are very good on technical and quality control but not so
good on social and labour rights. That is not necessarily a problem
because they have not got the experience. Dealing with labour
rights and social rights is not an easy topic, it is not as easy
as doing quality control and technical control. Most of their
advisors and most of their managers are not experienced in that
side of it, and that is where they fall down. However much they
are concerned about it, most of them have social awareness officers
in their business, some have their own codes of practice as well
as belonging to the Fresh Fruit Producers Consortium code of practice
as well, they are taking it seriously but they have not yet developed
an effective way of monitoring it.
Q163 Mr Jack: Do you think they should?
Mr Pollard: Yes, definitely I
think they should. I think if they were as concerned about labour
rights as they are about quality control, much more could be done.
Q164 Mr Jack: Is the increasing use
of gangmaster labour a direct function of the greater price pressure
which producers are experiencing currently?
Mr Pollard: I think experience
would say that it is. As you have price pressure it goes back
to the grower and the packhouse who have to find ways of cutting
their cost as well. Either you become more efficient, more technical,
or you cut back on your labour or you cut back on the payment
to your labour. In that sort of chain of things the weakest link
is the worker himself or herself and that is where the pressure
is eventually going back to.
Q165 Mr Jack: Mr Pollard, when we
first started to take evidence on this, that would have been my
assumption but one of the views which was put to us was that in
fact there is a rate for gangmaster labour and if there are illicit
practices going on, a worker is being exploited, it is not the
user of the labour who benefits but the gangmaster who pockets
the difference. Can you help us to give us a feel as to which
of those two views is correct or is it both?
Mr Allenson: My view would be
that it is probably somewhere in between. I think the price pressure
does have an effect but in itself is not necessarily the answer.
Certainly it would assist if the supermarkets were to be better
in terms of the prices that are paid to growers and some of that
may filter through. Certainly without a doubt in the present situation
some of it would leak through to other parts of the system before
it filtered down to the worker at the bottom. Can I just say as
well, in terms of the supermarkets, obviously this has been a
high profile issue for a number of years. I referred to the press
and media attention to this earlier. That has been a factor in
terms of sometimes you may wonder why particular people are also
on board with this registration request for legislation for that.
The reality is of course it is high profile, everybody wants to
be seen to be doing morally the right thing, especially when consumers
are reading the papers and listening to the television programmes,
etc. The classic example of that is that of course they have tremendous
pressure at the sharp end in terms of the growers. I know of situations
where people have, because of that pressure, had rest facilities
made available to them, for example toilet facilities on the field
now compared with what they used to have in the past. Some of
that has been legislation driven, before that it was supermarket
driven because they were concerned about the image.
Q166 Mr Jack: Can I just ask Mr Pollard,
especially, whether in your researches you have come across any
data which enables you to tell the Committee what the difference
might be between, if you like, the hourly rates charged by gangmasters
for their workforce, the rate that might apply to a normal agriculture
or horticulture worker and anything about the rates paid to the
Mr Pollard: Obviously the rate
paid to the workers, if they are covered by the Agricultural Wages
Order, is already set.
Q167 Mr Jack: This is really the
question as to whether in fact the people who are being exploited
would be able to benefit from the Agricultural Wages Order? My
intuitive guess is they may not and they are not in a position
to protest if they get a lower wage. How much do we know, if anything
at all, about what workers from the diverse backgrounds that we
discussed earlier in our discussions actually get compared with
what they ought to get?
Mr Pollard: There is another problem
connected with that. The wage that they get, even if it is a statutory
amount, either minimum wage or agriculture wage, is not necessarily
what they get in their pocket because of the deductions, most
of which are illegal. You could be paying somebody £5 an
hour, and I have seen cases where the gangworkers have got less
than £2.50 when it came to the actual wages because of deductions
from the wages, many of whichprobably most of whichare
illegal. The only legal ones are national insurance and income
tax without the proof of the worker. Even where there is a wage
paid which looks legitimate, what actually goes to the worker,
especially if they are an illegal immigrant worker who has come
here probably as a result of a loan where he came from, interest
charged on that loan is really horrendous, plus in the few cases
where I have seen a payslip they have put down administrative
charges, no explanation of what that is but there is another deduction
as well. I think we have to look at the deductions from the wage
even where it is legal. This whole question about if you increase
the price paid by the supermarkets to the growers and to packhouse
people, will that go to the worker, that is a pretty difficult
question. I suppose, the only way you could do it, you are probably
all familiar with Fair Trade and the official Fair Trade situation
where you pay extra for the product you buy but you are guaranteed
that money goes to the worker or a co-operative of workers so
they can spend it for the best benefit of their situations.
Q168 Mr Mitchell: You are not very
keen on voluntary codes, are you? Why do you think the voluntary
codes which have been introduced by the Fresh Produce Consortium
and the NFU fail?
Mr Allenson: This is a personal
view, again no hard evidence in respect of this. First of all,
the voluntary codes are just that, they are voluntary. The gangmasters
we have found have very quickly realised that and as a consequence
will not bother abiding by the voluntary codes. No independent
verification, no enforcement at the end of that. Unless there
is some remedial action that can be put to some of the people
who are dealing within these types of situations, any voluntary
code I think is unlikely to work in our view. We have had now
certainly two voluntary codes and neither of them seem to have
made the situation any better, in fact during their period of
time the situation seems to have got even worse.
Q169 Mr Mitchell: Do you think that
is a mutually convenient arrangement for people who do not want
to do anything about it?
Mr Pollard: Certainly it makes
it easier for them: who is monitoring it, how often are they monitoring
it, are they independent monitors, are they experienced and trained
monitors, if they find a violation do they change the supplier?
I have mentioned earlier two cases of where gangmasters as a result
of VAT fraud are in prison, their companies are still operating.
They are still supplying the supermarkets they provided before.
That is one of the reasons why we have some scepticism about voluntary
Q170 Mr Mitchell: If you persuaded
suppliers and farmers not to use gangmasters who do not accept
a voluntary code, would that not work?
Mr Pollard: I think we have to
remember who we are dealing with. We are not dealing with reasonable
people in many cases, in some cases we are actually dealing with
criminal elements and you do not go to a criminal and say "Here
is a voluntary code, could you abide by that". Then you are
dealing, also, with sharper edged business competition and it
is not so easy in a tough situation like that to abide by codes
of practice which are voluntary, particularly if you see so many
others not abiding by it.
Q171 Mr Mitchell: I was talking about
the suppliers and farmers who are presumably all honourable men.
You are not accusing them of being criminal elements but why would
they want to employ criminal elements if you persuade them not
to employ anybody who will not abide by the voluntary code?
Mr Pollard: They might find it
difficult to find anybody to work if they did that. It is a real
problem about finding labour sources in rural areas. In a sense
they contact a gangmaster and they say "We need 50 workers
for two months" and they set a price between them and they
do not even supervise those workers, although they may be working
on their premises. Although it seems odd that farmers and packhouse
people use gangmasters who are doing illegal acts, they are not
employing those people their contact is somebody else. The actual
employer is the gangmaster himself or herself.
Q172 Mr Mitchell: Do they see anything
of them? The packers and farmers, do they see anything of the
labour or do they leave that to somebody else and wash their hands
Mr Pollard: They or their staff
would see them because if they are in the fields probably a regular
member of staff would be driving a tractor.
Q173 Mr Mitchell: Would they not
know if they are not operating minimum industry conditions, if
they are working in appalling conditions and under coercion?
Mr Pollard: I would say that many
of them do know but some of them do not know. Basically they want
that work done and the gangmaster provides that labour. Any situation
like that it is mostly temporary, even if they are UK workers
they would not necessarily know the labour that is there. There
is obviously the other problem of language difficulties as well,
especially with illegal immigrants.
Q174 Mr Mitchell: You think it is
in their interest to ignore the voluntary code largely, treat
it as a fig leaf?
Mr Pollard: I think many do. Many
are concerned and make the checks, many growers and packhouse
people, but there is also an equal number who want the work done
at a certain price and that is the bottom line.
Q175 Mr Mitchell: Can I just ask
you a couple of questions. The Daily Mail todayI
always read it to find out what is going on in the worldsays
that people are being attracted into this country by the prospect
of black market jobs or the black economy. You mention an involvement
of criminals from Eastern Europe, what is the scale of involvement
of asylum seekers?
Mr Pollard: Again, just drawing
on the Sussex experience where there seems to be a far greater
percentage of asylum seekers in that area therefore working illegally,
if you are asylum seeking and are here less than six months you
cannot work and if you go to seek work then you are working illegally.
Now the gangmaster knows those people are the most vulnerable,
they cannot complain or do anything else so therefore they are
the most abused. After your six months if you are working legally
or allowed to work legally then you are treated a bit better.
There are a large percentage of asylum seekers who, I would say,
are forced into that situation because of the structure we have
Q176 Mr Mitchell: There are several
whose last appeal has expired or been rejected, then they lose
accommodation because the agency turfs them out and they lose
benefit. They are presumably the kind of willing participant:
any job in that situation?
Mr Pollard: Of course. I think
sometimes, especially as a result of media presentations, you
think all these asylum seekers or other illegal immigrants are
freeloaders. In my experience all the illegal immigrant gangworkers
work incredibly long hours, often in poor accommodation, they
send back whatever money they can to their families and if they
had the opportunity to pay tax or national insurance they would
do that as well. It is just the situation they are in. They are
made out to be these sort of bogey men and women living off the
state and coming to this country, sometimes we forget a lot of
our people went off to Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand
and they are in this position now. I do not see anything wrong
with economic migrants.
Q177 David Taylor: Earlier on there
was a discussion on the extreme lengths gangmasters are willing
to go to in order to avoid their responsibilities. Do you think
the inability of the policean example would be in Lincolnshireto
supply sufficient resources to investigate allegations of coercion
and threats and illegality encourages an atmosphere where they
believe they can flout all reasonable employment laws? The police
in Lincolnshire, Chairman, have stated that such enforcement visits,
such activity is financed out of their overtime budget. They do
not have an overtime budget because they are cash strapped and
therefore this is a very low priority for them. Is that your experience
Mr Pollard: It is a low priority
and it is a very complicated and time consuming priority for the
police. If you look at it, in the end who gets prosecuted, who
gets legally taken care of
Q178 David Taylor: Victims.
Mr Pollard: the worker
and the people who are profiting from them very seldom do. Where
we see prosecution of gangmasters it is for VAT fraud or national
insurance non compliance or income tax non compliance it is almost
like Al Capone and people like him, eventually they put those
people in prison not for the physical crimes they committed but
for tax avoidance. There are a minuscule number of gangmasters
who have been prosecuted and mostly the prosecutions have been
of illegal workers who are then sent back to where they came from.
Q179 David Taylor: You would like
to see the police being more rigorous?
Mr Pollard: When they make a raid
on a packhouse and they arrest 50 people who are illegal immigrants,
they have not even got space in their cells to put them, much
less all the follow up work of bringing them to the court.
Mr Allenson: Could I just quickly
add something in terms of that last question because there is
a resource issue all the way through I think in terms of the various
agencies which are involved. Our experience has been, for example,
in Health and Safety, in respect of the Wages Inspectorate, there
is a resource implication all the way through. In particular,
because there are a number of agencies involved, although, for
example, Operation Gangmaster may have had a much better co-ordinated
approach to the situation, there is still an unco-ordinated approach
in many respects to some of these situations and certainly a resource
implication. Again, that is why we believe a registration scheme
should be brought together that would bind it all together and
identify the resources which have been needed to do this which
in many ways would be almost self-funding because of the level
of national insurance and tax revenue which is being drawn out
because it is not being paid at the present time.