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

Memorandum submitted by Dr Jennifer Frances, Senior Research Associate, Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge


My recent research looked at the determinants and consequences of the configuration of supply in the food chain network developed by supermarkets, such as efficient consumer response (ECR), category management and web-enabled electronic data interchange (EDI). This research included a study of gangmasters, agricultural workers and growers. [1]


  Gang labour is thought to have originated in the village of Castle Acre in Norfolk in the 1820s as a way of coordinating peripheral agricultural day labour to meet the demand for irregular labour on large farms. The term "gang labour" referred to the bringing together or ganging of groups of about 50 women, men and children for the purpose of weeding and stone clearing to bring new land under cultivation. Gangs were formed under the supervision of a self appointed manager known as a "gangmaster". The gangmaster operated as a self-employed sub-contractor, and negotiated directly with the local farmer to receive a specific sum for a piece of work. The gangmaster had formerly worked as a day labourer locally and was able to judge how to calculate a profit from both the conditions of the land and the labour.

  The gang was put under the charge of an overseer who acted as the ganger for that group. The overseer either worked with the gang or, if the gang was large or made up mainly of children, they managed the pace of work, sometimes by force. Their role was to ensure that the piece was completed within the profit margin agreed with the owner. To be assured of a profit, the day was divided into four sections and the gang members were paid at each quarter of the working day. (In this way the uncertainties could be minimised; for example, if any quarter of the day was not fully worked due to bad weather, the workers were not paid for any part of the quarter. [2]

  The gangmaster benefited by becoming an employer instead of a labourer and was a little better off financially. Sometimes he received a small definite sum for each member of the gang; more often he trusted to making his profits by taking piecework from the farmer and paying wages to the gang. Many of them also made extra profits by keeping and selling provisions and forcing all members of the gang to deal with them. As farmers realised the economic advantages, they employed the gangs more and more, not only for their extra work, but also for the tasks hitherto performed by regular labourers, "to do the work for which men apply for and are refused".[3]


  In the mid nineteenth century there was a shortage of domestic servants in urban areas, and supply from rural areas had diminished. Debates arose about how agricultural gang work made young girls and women unfit for domestic service:

    "I find that when girls used to field work go out to service they rarely stay long in a place and are frequently running home . . . The effects are not good on their manners or morals, as in many portions they labour promiscuously with men and lads"[4]


  The Agricultural Gangs Act of 1867 was designed to protect children, and women's manners and morals. The act stopped children under the age of eight working in gangs, and prevented male and female labourers from working together in the same gang. All gangmasters were required to be licensed, and a woman supervisor was obligatory when women and young people were employed. [5]Agricultural historians have seen the Act of 1867, coupled with technological improvements and the unionisation of male agricultural workers, as effective in removing the gang system for both men and women. To the best of my knowledge no in-depth study has been undertaken of agricultural gang workers in the modern era. The only accounts we have are the Parliamentary Reports from the nineteenth century (see footnote footnotes 3 and 4). [6]


  Our knowledge of the organisation of production in the agricultural sector may be difficult to ascertain, but we know that sub-contracting via a gang boss was practically ubiquitous in most UK industries in the 19th century. A reason for the removal by 19th and early 20th century firms of the gang-boss was that:

    "while he was paid on piece prices, he paid his team on fixed day wages. The more economically and efficiently he organised production, the larger his profit"[7]

  Sub-contracting served to maintain time-wages as the common pattern of payment, and the decay of the contract system in manufacturing is associated with the spread of both collective and individual piecework.


  The following exemplar illustrates the modern day practices of an agricultural gang-boss and the organisation of agricultural labour and their relationship with supermarkets. Fresh produce is a sector of agricultural production of which statistical authorities acknowledge that it has been impossible to assess data on the following:

    —  how much is produced;

    —  where it is sold;

    —  how many people work in the industry;

    —  under what conditions people work. [9]

  Gangmasters, like their customers the growers, are not a homogenous group. Small-scale gangers work with a regular gang of about ten to twelve persons who hire themselves out with the group to small-scale operations. The ganger in this case finds the work, works with the group, owns the transport and usually drives the gang to and from work locations. The reduction of small grower enterprises (formerly known as market gardens) is mirrored in the decline of small-scale gangmasters. As contracts with small growers dry up, small gangs are subcontracting themselves as a self-employed group to large-scale gangmasters who provide services to large-scale growers. [10]These gangmasters are keen to employ established gangs as the latter have developed skills in working together as a team, and handling produce in both fields and packing houses to "supermarket quality".

  Until the middle of the 1970s gangs were employed on sugar beet hoeing, weeding and lifting potatoes: mechanisation then replaced these agricultural jobs. In horticulture hand work in the fields such as planting continued to require gangs, and new tasks on downstream activities, such as preparation, labelling and packaging, came into being and were performed in the field or in packing houses. An example of adding value in the field is when sweet corn husks must be stripped back to reveal the ear, or spring onions are bunched, weighed, trimmed and labelled.

  The organisation of gangs, sub-contracted by gangmasters to growers, to work in the field or the packhouse remained the same, with some gangs working interchangeably between packhouses and fields. Some explanation about packhouses is required. If a grower builds a packhouse on a holding classified to horticulture or agriculture, then all employees working on the land and the packhouse are classified in the MAFF annual agricultural census as agricultural workers. If the packhouse is located on land not classified to horticulture/agriculture then the employees are not recorded in the annual agricultural census, and their contribution as part of the agricultural work force goes unrecorded.

  Large-scale gangmasters handle labour supplies for major growers. One major grower working with the supermarkets on the basis of relational contracts, acknowledges his dependency on gang labour: [11]

    "Basically we are growers and pre-packers and this site grows salad products, lettuces, celery and with a few speciality lettuces.

    We use two forms of casual labour. One is the gangmaster who comes in and obviously works for a short period of time on a very ad hoc basis; basically when we need him. Then we also employ our own casual labour which we take on and employ ourselves. There again it's as short-term contract, casual.

    Our peak times are harvest time, which is in the summer months. At that point we need a great influx to actually cope with the fact that we are going to be harvesting. We employ our own workforce between 500 and 600 people as a standard fixed workforce. And then from the beginning of May through till November/December time, that will go up to 1,000/1,500. So as you can see our labour force has to be geared up to react very, very quickly.

    Most of the gangs that we are currently using we have used for some time. . . . gangmasters ring us up on a regular basis saying that they have got people available, and we keep people on file . . . we have used casual labour for such a long time now it just carries on from year to year" (F&V Growers).

  F&V Growers is a large-scale operation and requires as many as 1,000 casual workers a day at peak periods to work on downstream added value tasks on produce which is dedicated to supermarket customers. One source of casual labour used by F&V Growers is a gangmaster known here as the GMA Agency, which organises 2,000 casual workers mainly for large-scale growers supplying supermarkets with fresh produce. [12]


  In 1980 the GMA Agency consisted of (and was owned by) a small-scale gangmaster responsible for finding work and organising two agricultural gangs. Each gang consisted of twelve women employed on a casual basis. The gangmaster was registered as a self-employed sole trader, and the majority of his contracts were for his father, a small-scale carrot grower and former gang master. When the gangs were not employed servicing the family carrot crop they were hired out to neighbouring farmers. GMA's task as a gangmaster was to find employment for the gang throughout the year; negotiate the rate for the job with the grower, recruit the labour, monitor production and pay the workers. GMA worked as a member of the gang, as did his mother. The role of gangmaster was in all respects the same as in the nineteenth century, the major difference being that the use of piece-rates had replaced fixed day rates as the preferred practice for worker remuneration.

  The organisation of the gang involved four main functions:

    —  approach to farmers to find work;

    —  assess the value of the work offered;

    —  negotiate the rate of pay for the job, usually on a piece rate basis;

    —  match worker skill to customer needs.

  All contracts between GMA and the growers, and GMA and the women gang members, were verbal contracts based on trust. The business was run from GMA's home, with other family members sharing the organisation of the gangs, and sometimes working in the gang.

  By 1992 GMA organised the employment of thirty gangs throughout the year. The business now managed on average 400 people, rising to 600 men and women at peak periods, July to December. The business was now organised as two companies; both owned and managed by GMA, with a joint turnover of £3 million.

  Company One was responsible for the supply of gangs for fieldwork. Company Two supplied casual workers for the grower's packing houses. Some of the customers' packing houses operated 24 hours a day for 364 days of the year. Several of the gangs working for Company Two work night shifts.

  Workers employed by GMA were used interchangeably between the companies depending on the demand. All work was casual, whether in the field or packing house, and was organised using the gang system. In 1993 the business moved to an office unit on a small commercial estate in the local market town. The business provided services to growers within approximately a fifty-mile radius. By January 1994 GMA's firm managed 45 gangs totalling 600 casual workers throughout the year, rising to 1,000 workers at peak times, with an annual turnover of £5 million. In January 1996 GMA had nearly 2,000 people working for the firm on a casual basis organised from four offices, with a turnover approaching £10 million:

    "Gangmaster has got a very bad reputation. In my mind this is something that has been brought on by one or two undesirable gangmasters, and by governments not wanting to see gangmasters around. Well, we're an employment agency now... so we are not gangmasters; although we came from gangmaster stock shall we say. Gangmasters... that's not the modern-day system want us to be now" (GMA gangmaster).

  The attack upon the position of the gang boss and internal contracting in nineteenth century manufacturing had led to the development of the capability to manage the workforce directly and to control uncertainties associated with labour cost systems. In contrast, the moral attack on gangmasters in agriculture had led to their vilification in the nineteenth century, but the uncertainties in production costs in agriculture imposed by seasonality and climatic variation perpetuated the need of growers for flexible indirect labour. The risks of incurring extra costs by using the services of a gangmaster in agriculture were still less in the twentieth century than maintaining and managing a directly employed workforce.

  F W Taylor (1961) in the early 1900s had identified the lack of surveillance and control of contractors (the gang-boss), and indirect labour, as problematic. The issue Taylor identified—the opportunity for the gang boss to cut worker rates and at the same time intensify worker effort for his own benefit—has continued to be associated with the agricultural gangmasters. [13]


  In 1989 the Agricultural Compliance Unit was formed to trace tax avoidance by casual workers and gangmasters. By 1994 the unit had identified 5,500 gangmasters (Guardian, 26 August 1995: 37) and recovered £537 million in unpaid tax. GMA, by redefining his business as a labour agency, is able to deal with the tax system more easily than as a gangmaster, and promote his services in other areas of the economy:

    "We've nearly 2,000 people working for us now in four company offices. We've got people in chocolate factories making chocolates for them (supermarkets), so we're picking up work from them on that side. We're picking up work through them building relationships with growers, so at the end of the day the supermarkets are responsible for GMA's good growth, because they have dragged up people who we deal with" (GMA Gangmaster).

  GMA sees that the growth of the firm came in part through increased demand for casual labour in agriculture, and also through demand in other industries such as chocolate making, magazine packing and bakery products, all of which had relational contracts with supermarkets. The supermarkets were identified by GMA as the prime movers for the organisation, co-ordination and relationships with suppliers, although his labour agency did not have any direct contact with supermarkets.

  Throughout the expansion of the business, GMA retained the responsibility for seeking customer contracts and negotiating rates of pay and calculating the overall worth and profitability of the contract. The key activities performed in 1980 had not changed in the mid-1990s: the exception being that GMA no longer works alongside the gang. He does, however, often perform the task to assess its ease or difficulty of performance as a means of calculating the rate for the job. [14]


  By 1996 there were five managers in the GMA Agency who coordinated the gangs, and they were referred to as "gangers" or gangmasters. Each ganger had specific responsibilities: one managed field gangs only, another two gangers managed a mixture of field and packing house workers, another dealt solely with night-shift workers, and the fifth ganger had responsibility for gangs working on special tasks such as planting.

  The main task of the gangers was to act as a labour coordinator and to ensure that the contract with the grower was completed as agreed, and profit made. The contract was in the form of a verbal agreement both ways, in that the grower expected to the best of his knowledge to require labour, and the gangmasters promised to provide labour. Sometimes the amount agreed to be paid was confirmed in writing. Some contracts are more straightforward than others. For example, when a grower decides to plant crops he can more readily specify labour requirements than when lifting crops, where variables such as the condition and availability of the crop mean that the details of a contract are kept fluid and constantly under review. Most importantly, the demand for a crop is dependent upon supermarket requirements, and their agreement to purchase produce is revised on a daily basis. This in turn is dependent upon the price of the product in the supermarket.

  The gangmaster takes total responsibility for employment relations for the grower by:

    —  providing health and safety training. Since the introduction of the Food Safety Act 1990, and the Food Hygiene Directive 1993, a food hygiene certificate is required before individuals can work in packhouses which supply supermarkets;

    —  liasing with the grower's directly-employed supervisors to ensure that casuals understand how to perform the job to meet quality specifications;

    —  recording the output of each worker and forwarding the returns to their own clerical staff for correct payment, and to the growers' accounts office to calculate the gangmaster's payment—all casual workers' names, addresses and national insurance numbers are collated by the gangmaster and tax deducted on a "pay-as-you-earn" basis;

    —  ensuring that each member of the gang can earn up to and over the daily rate of pay;

    —  being able to supply more labour if the contract expands and removing and reallocating workers if the contract is reduced; workers are laid off—literally at a moment's notice. [15]


  The function of the administrative staff is to ensure that workers are paid correctly and growers invoiced accurately. Two wages staff are employed: one to administer wages earned on fieldwork, the other calculating the payroll for packhouse work. The gangers return the paperwork for each shift showing hourly piece rates calculated for each individual; this can be extremely elaborate and painstaking, and subject to miscalculation.

  The firm uses Apple Macintosh computers and specially designed software which enables them to keep up-to-date lists of workers, with personal details including mode of pay, National Insurance number and PAYE data. Although pay is calculated on a casual basis and workers are not committed to working any set number of hours or days per week, they are not paid cash in hand on a daily basis; all workers are paid one week in arrears.

  GMA's gangs (excluding the hostel workers who are a small minority) are grouped around the locality in which they live. GMA provides transport for the gangs and has a fleet of over 60 transit vans. Members of each gang have one person who is designated the driver and is usually the gang leader. Since workers live mainly in isolated and rural areas with infrequent or non-existent public transport facilities, the gang leader collects and returns gang members from door to door or from a central meeting point. [16]The driver of the van is also responsible for letting members of the group know if there are any changes to the work schedule. Contact with gang members is usually by telephone and (prior to the invention and penetration of the mobile phone), people who did not have access to a private phone had to use a public phone box to check if there were any changes. Work venues can change overnight, as can the need to increase or reduce labour requirements.

  Getting casual gangs to the work site on a regular basis has been a major problem for GMA. The role of the van driver is crucial, and drivers are paid an incentive payment of 2.5% of the total earned by the van members each week. [17]The level of trust and autonomy has to be high between GMA, the gang leaders, and the gang leaders and the rest of the gang. To encourage these relationships the van driver is allowed the use of the van out of working hours.


  Not all members of the gang want to work a full week, and some will not want to work certain contracts. For example, some people refuse to plant lettuce because they cannot achieve a high piece rate, whereas others will specifically move from one gang to another in order to be able to plant lettuce. This example endorses the point that work groups maintain skill bases in order to achieve good pay rates. They also do this through attachment to a particular work group or to a particular ganger, regardless of task.

  An important aspect of the gangmaster's work is that of matching worker to task, so those individuals can earn the maximum possible. The gangmaster's motive is instrumental: "Most people we deal with (growers) pay us on a percentage. An average percentage would be 30 to 35% mark up on whatever our workers, staff are earning . . . I'd love to see all our people earn £500 per week" (GMA Gangmaster). [18]

  The gangmaster therefore created his profit by the percentage he could negotiate (some contracts are at only 10%) and from the effort intensification of the gang workers. The gangmasters had to find "skilled" workers, because if work was rejected by the supermarket on the grounds of poor quality, then the gang bore the cost and this affected the gangmaster's profit.


  The following detailed example of a gang grading, bagging and labelling carrots in a packhouse that supplies the major supermarkets and operates 364 days a year, illustrates the points outlined above.

  Exhibit One represents workers are "named" in pairs one to 17. The pairs stand one on each side of the conveyor belt packing carrots into polythene bags from 08:30 to 16:00. The seven workers identified by the numbers 35 to 41 are not paired and are employed on jobs which help maintain the continuous flow of the carrot line. Person 35 removes poor-quality carrots, worker 36 labels the produce, and gang members 37 and 38 pack the bags of carrots into boxes. Worker 39 stacks the boxes ready for transit to the supermarket's distribution centre. Worker 40 ensures that the carrot hopper can continuously feed the belt, and worker 41 generally assists the rest of the gang, standing in when somebody goes to the toilet and supplies workers with polythene bags. Four full-time company members of staff work with the gang: a supervisor, two quality controllers and a forklift truck driver to remove the boxes of packed carrots from the packing line.

  Exhibit Two is a typical piece work record for a gang's shift working on a carrot line. It comes from a packhouse that supplies Tesco and Sainsbury's with vegetables throughout the year: "This is an example of a piece work scheme we work in many, many different places" (GMA Gangmaster).

Worker pairs
(Total no
of workers = 34)
Basic shift 0830-1600
Number of bags
Extra time 1600-1710
Number of bags
Total bags
Pay per person
11,110158 1,26831.70
2753137 89022.25
3996185 1,18127.02
4882144 1,02625.65
571979 79819.95
61,190184 1,37434.35
71,069237 1,30632.65
81,391234 1,62540.62
91,302274 1,57639.40
101,776383 2,15953.97
111,292206 1,49837.45
121,451240 1,69142.27
131,509264 1,77344.32
14826176 1,00225.05
15676128 80420.10
161,207228 1,43535.87
17956168 1,12428.12

35Picking offDay's pay
36LabellingDay's pay
37PackingDay's pay
38PackingDay's pay
39StackingDay's pay
40HopperDay's pay
41GeneralDay's pay


  The time sheet data show that pair 10 packed 2159 bags during eight hours 10 minutes' working on the line. Both members of pair 10 packed a one-pound bag of carrots every 30 seconds, making their hourly rate of pay £6.60 (above the Council of Europe's decency threshold of £5.88). In contrast, pair five packed 798 bags over the same shift, 36% of pair 10's output. 10 members of the gang (pairs two, three, 13, 14, and 15) did not achieve whole-time worker rates of £3.72 as stipulated by the AWBO, and pair five's hourly rate averaged £2.44, which is less than the AWBO casual rate of £2.76 per hour.

  GMA, the gangmaster, explained differences in worker output:

  There are various reasons why some people have not earned that much. One obvious reason would be that they are no bloody good. Another reason might be that they have not been shown how to do the job quickly and effectively. Or, it might be the case they are not cut out for that work, they just can't do it (GMA Gangmaster).

  Neither GMA nor the grower wants to employ workers who are able to achieve only a minimum output. In the case of the carrot-bagging line, the assumption is that pair One should have achieved the highest output and highest earnings. This is because they are directly next to the hopper and have the pick of the crop, with little sorting and sifting needed to fill a bag with "grade one" carrots. At the end of the line, pairs 15, 16 and 17 have more sorting to find grade one items; they are expected to earn less. The position of the pairs in the gang is therefore rotated on a daily basis to give all workers an opportunity to work at the top of the line and to increase their output and pay.

  GMA and the grower carefully monitor the productivity of gangs and individual gang members. The sheet reveals that workers in poor positions on the line—in terms of earnings opportunities—have sometimes earned more than those in more favourable positions. GMA, who is paid a percentage of the gang's total earnings, does not want to keep poor earners as this suppresses his own earning opportunities. From the grower's perspective, low productivity by individuals is associated with poor-quality work, ie the output is low because the company quality control staff has rejected the work by the casual worker. GMA explained what happens when individuals are singled out as poor workers:

    "If they were new I would expect the supervisor to evaluate the situation. I would expect them to say "Now look you've tried really hard today. What I'm prepared to do is make your money up to a day's pay and for two more days." I would show them the sheet so they can see they are below average. "right you've got two more days of day's pay then you're on piece work—you've got tot work for yourself" (GMA Gangmaster).

  Individual gang workers are required to work to the mean standard of all other workers in the group deployed on the same task. Employees who have difficulty in achieving a mean level of output are in the first instance given training, and if this is unsuccessful moved to another form of employment. Individual workers and gangs quickly earn reputations as good or poor workers through the transparency of the piece rate system, which acts as a highly effective monitoring system as the time sheet in Exhibit 4.4 illustrates.


  From Exhibit one it is evident that the recording of individual workers' output and simple calculations provides a clear cost analysis for the grower, the gang boss and for individual workers. Workers check the piece-rate sheets with the ganger. Work rate is intensive (as seen in the foregoing of the afternoon tea break and the willingness to extend the shift), and workers say they want to work alongside fellow workers who sustain a high rate of out put as this acts as a stimulus.

  The ability of growers to increase or decrease piece-rates is clearly understood and accepted by the gangs. This is why some gangs select where they work and opt for tasks not just with high piece rates but where their skill enables them to earn a "good wage"[19]. The gangmaster is no longer forced to drive up piece rates and worker output as the only means to improve his income. Instead he can negotiate a higher percentage rate for himself from the grower for providing top-quality, highly flexible workers. The payment method means a simplified method of accounting for the grower, who offers the same piece rates to direct and indirect workers. This is viewed by the gang as "fair" but in some cases, when permanent workers are skilled and can earn higher daily rates, the casual gang becomes demotivated.


  This evidence illustrates the continuity and change in the labour process for agricultural workers. Gangmasters and the use of sub-contract labour continue to help growers manage uncertainty,:

    "It's adaptable, we can turn it off very quickly. Obviously, when we have a great influx of work then we are able to get hold of labour very quickly. We can turn them on and off on days when work is not available. So, when there is a day when no work is available for them we can turn them off at no cost to ourselves" (Grower).

  Uncertainty for growers has in part been intensified by the supermarkets business models, the impact of new ICTs in the food chain network and the change in purchasing and consumption practices of consumers. This means that when the choice is made between the purchase of one bunch of spring onions or two, so sensitive is the stock replenishment information system that a job in the spring onion field may be at stake. Costly buffer stocks are not held at the back of the store—the buffer is borne by the gangmaster and the gang labour.


  Coordination of gangs today is similar to that performed by the gang boss in the nineteenth century in both agriculture and other industries. The issues in common with workers from former times are labour intensification, wage rates, task allocation and the relationship between ganger and gang. The key change is the speeding up of the information flow, and the increase in economies of scale within the food chain network; an exacerbation of long-running tendencies. Further, the goods are not being produced for sale on the open market but are being produced for the distributor, the supermarket.

Dr Jennifer Frances

22 May 2003

1   The evidence in this memorandum is based on the research for my PhD thesis "From field to fridge: Innovations in UK food retailing" (2002). For a discussion of the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their impact on agricultural labour see: Frances, Jennifer and Garnsey, Elizabeth (1996), "Supermarkets and suppliers in the UK: system integration, information and control", Accounting, Organisation and Society 21(6), 591-610.

For a discussion of the impact of supermarkets business models including ECR, category management and web-enabled EDI see: Frances, Jennifer and Garnsey, Elizabeth (2001), "Lean information and the role of the Internet in the United Kingdom", in The BRIE-IGCC E-Economy Project, Tracking a Transformation: E-Commerce and the Terms of Competition in Industries, Washington DC: Brookings Institution, pp 280-308. Back

2   In 1843 gang work included stone picking; pulling couch grass; planting corn (by dibbling) and setting turnips, peas, and beans; hoeing and weeding; hay-making, including loading hay; harvest work such as binding and gleaning; picking potatoes, pulling turnips and gathering mangold, wurzels and carrots for about 7d to 8d a day. These tasks and their remuneration changed through the century and no two villages are directly comparable, but the list indicates the sheer diversity of paid work that women agricultural labourers had to be able to do. None of this was described as skilled (in common with most of women's paidwork) even when agricultural textbooks emphasised the careful handling of agricultural implements. Back

3   (PP, 1843, xii pp. 223, 276; PP, 1867, xvi, pp. 37, 168; quoted in Pinchbeck, I, (1981) Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution 1750 1850 London: Virago : 88 (first edition 1930). Back

4   PP, 1843, xii, p. 243). Back

5   Gang women were represented as dangerous, independent and masculine; viragos the sight of which could corrupt. "(Their language and behaviour were) . . . coarse, rough even to strangers so much so that a respectable person meeting a set of these girls and women `cannot venture to speak to, scarcely to look at them, without risk of being shocked by them . . . mixed gangs are . . . objected to on the grounds of indecency. In the case of females, their dress as it is often worn or as arranged to avoid the wet, and the stooping nature of the work are said to involve a certain amount of exposure, which excites the notice of the other sex, and leads to indecent remarks . . ." (PP, 1867-8, xvii, p 77). Back

6   See Produce Studies Report "Operation gangmaster" 1998, for difficulties in gaining access to information on gangmasters. Back

7   (Fox, 1955: 60 quoted in Littler, 1982:77). Back

8   I have researched agricultural gangs and gangmasters since 1988. For this study I spent one week work shadowing the gang boss and interviewing five gangers. Much of the information on gang workers comes from observation, but I spoke with over 40 field workers: to ask them to be interviewed would have meant that they would have had to stop working and would therefore lose pay. I did conduct six semi-structured interviews with gang workers who were staying at the gang master's hostel. It was impossible for me to join as a gang member because it was known that I was interested in supermarket supplier relations, and this was seen by growers as problematic. During the major part of my contact with the gangmaster, his turnover increased from £3 million to £10 million.


9   The production of fruit and vegetables in the UK was recorded in MAFF data as horticultural production. Any study of horticulture in the UK is confronted by the two-fold problem of definition and data degradation. Fresh horticultural produce is defined in the Agriculture and Horticulture Act 1964 as "fruit, vegetables nuts and edible fungi, whether freshly gathered or stored or taken from store but not including main crop potatoes or hops or any dried, frozen bottled, canned or preserved produce".

Horticultural holdings are defined in the UK farm classification system, which conforms to the EC system; and holdings are classified according to their main economic activity as measured by Standard Gross Margins (SGM); per hectare of crops and per head for live stock. The classification "horticulture" comprises holdings with more than two-thirds of their total SGM in horticultural crops. An important point to note is that, for this purpose only, field-scale vegetables are classified as farm crops and, together with mushrooms, are not classified to horticulture. More generally, horticultural crops are grown on holdings other than those classified to horticulture (HC61-II: 5).

The category of field vegetables covers crops grown in the open for human consumption; the category of protected vegetables covers crops grown in glasshouses or under plastic covered structures other than low plastic tunnels. Ornamental includes nursery stock, bedding plants, bulbs and flowers.

Items within the non-edible ornamental sector, eg flowers, are distributed through supermarkets. Back

10   During my fieldwork I accompanied a gangmaster when he "purchased" an established gang from a gangmaster who was retiring; this meant that the gang of ten women were willing to be subcontracted on to the next gangmaster. During my visit they were kneeling on the land, hand-planting lettuce for a grower who supplied supermarkets. The gangmaster did not participate in the work but remained in the van with his dog. His wife was a member of the gang. Back

11   Turnover of £40 million in 1994. Back

12   They also employ students from the Warsaw Agricultural College under the seasonal agricultural workers' scheme, which the Home office operates. 4500 people enter the UK each year to undertake short-term agricultural work. F&V Growers took 206 students, including foreign nationals from Turkey, Morocco, Spain Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Back

13   The Rural and Agricultural and Allied Workers' Union ran an unsuccessful campaign in the late 1980s to form a voluntary register and code of practice for gangmasters: only nine gangmasters registered. Back

14   Agricultural produce is subject to uncertainties imposed by climate such as the need for more cleaning or trimming of the crop because of wet conditions, or if crop has started to rot; these factors affect piece rates and profit margins for the gangmaster. Back

15   GMA runs a hostel for workers, mainly young people travelling from Australian, New Zealand and increasingly South Africa, and Eastern Europe, looking for work. GMA is not licensed to have a quota of the 4000 foreign workers from the government agricultural scheme (SAWS) discussed in Chapter three. The grower to whom AGM supplies labour receives about 1000 Polish workers through the scheme and houses them on the farm in portacabins. Gang labour also attracts people who have been unable to hold down regular jobs and earn enough to provide them with accommodation; some of these workers also have learning difficulties and, or mental health problems. The hostel also provides meals and packed lunches, the charge for which is deducted from the workers' pay. All workers were paid one week in arrears; none were paid cash in hand or on the day of employment. This creates problems for workers in the hostel, who have two weeks' board and lodging deducted from the first week's pay (one week's lodging in arrears, one in advance). If in a two-week period a worker has not earned enough to pay for board and lodging they are in effect "working themselves into debt". The hostel arrangement, however ensures that AGM receives workers who, having no home or social commitments, are willing to work large amounts of overtime. This maintains AGM's reputation as able to deliver labour to match JIT produce orders (interviews with hostel staff and residents during a stay in the hostel).

The accounts clerk is responsible for invoicing the clients and ensuring that accounts are paid within a 28-day period. Other responsibilities include placing advertisements for labour in local newspapers both within their own region and urban areas known to have surplus labour, such as the Midlands and London. Adverts are also placed abroad to attract workers to the hostel.

The secretary has a general role, acting as front-line receptionist directing job seekers to the appropriate ganger (all four gangers take part in recruitment along with GMA) and handling GMA's telephone calls and meetings.

In summary the firm employs up to 2,000 people from a fifty-mile radius mainly to growers but also to other industries who supply supermarkets. The labour co-ordinators have to be in close contact with GMA to know where and when workers are required; this changes from day to day, and workers can be laid off at a moment's notice. The next section looks in detail at the job content for casual agricultural workers in both field and packhouse.


16   In Cambridge gangmasters come into the city to transport workers to the countryside. This practice also occurs in London and Birmingham (observation and interview with Agricultural and Allied Workers' Trade Union). Back

17   For example, if a van driver is responsible for 12 van members and each earns on average £120 gross per week, the total earned by the van members is £1,440, and the bonus paid to the van driver would be £36.00. Back

18   During the 1990s, prior to the introduction of the minimum wage, agricultural workers were paid in accordance with the Agricultural Wages Board Order (AWBO). The AWBO for 1994 fixed the hourly rate for regular part-time and whole-time workers at £3.72 per hour and £2.76 per hour for casuals. A good piece-rate worker earned £5.00 per hour, but many earned less; and packhouses not classified to agriculture were not covered by the order.

Working through Exhibit One, Column one lists the names of the workers: for convenience they have been numbered in pairs. In Column two records the numbers of bags packed by each pair between 08:30 and 16:00: a seven-hour working shift with a half-hour break for lunch.

Column three records the number of bags packed between 16:00 and 17:10. In this case the shift was extended to 17:10 to meet a customer order; during the extended shift the piece rate remained the same. The original sheet also shows that the gang did not stop for a tea break when the afternoon shift was extended. Column four records the total number of bags packed by each pair. Column five shows the amount earned by each member of the gang. The workers named as pairs one to 17 worked on a piece rate of 2.5p for each bag of carrots satisfactorily packed to "supermarket quality." The wages for the day ranged from £53.97 each for pair 10, to £19.95 each for pair five. Workers 35 to 41 were not on piece rates and were paid a daily rate of £29.00 in accordance with the Agricultural Wages Board Order.

Exhibit Two: Piece Work Record for the Carrot Bagging Line Back

19   On occasion individuals will opt for a "quality of life job", such as strawberry picking or lettuce planting. This can be a backbreaking task for an unskilled person, but I was told that some groups want these "old-fashioned jobs" because they can work outdoors in spring/summer with their mates (interviews with gangs). Back

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Prepared 27 June 2003