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

Examination of Witness (Questions 271-279)

Wednesday 4 June 2003

Dr Jennifer Frances

  Q271  Chairman: Dr Frances, welcome to the Committee. You have no doubt been following our inquiry into this and, no doubt, will have come to the same conclusions we have, that it is getting quite difficult to pin things down and to get anything rather precise on all this. Indeed, there are occasions when we wonder who is really inconvenienced by the whole process. Out attempts to get from the Government and others any sort of clear idea as to what they think are the dimensions of the problem I have to say have not been terribly successful. The Government does claim that it really cannot estimate the amount of work contracted to gangmasters or the money involved. Do you think you can help us in that regard? How reasonable is that defence?

Dr Frances: I think it is perfectly reasonable at the present time that the Government can claim that it does not know the size of the problem and I do not think immediately could give you those numbers. I think that there are mechanisms in place perhaps to discover those numbers more accurately. As in my memorandum, it states that this has been a long historical problem that dates back to the origin of the system, which as I said goes back to the 1820s. There has been a very long period since the 1860s of the Agricultural Census but it has not had any interest in gathering labour statistics, it has only been interested in knowing what was being grown in the land. Up until the 1950s casual and permanent part-time labour was lumped into one group, so even in the post-war era we never had any valid statistics as to who was working. Over time this has just become an impossible area to discover. Are there certain other aspects that you would like me to elaborate on?

  Q272  Chairman: You said that there are mechanisms which might allow us to work this out. Would you like to tell us what they are?

  Dr Frances: I am just thinking this through for you. I would like to start with the term "gangmaster". The term itself is difficult because what actually defines a gangmaster as compared to somebody who wants to now call themselves a labour agency which supplies casual workers into agriculture or, in fact, any of the businesses in distribution or food processing, I would take that as one and the whole. Secondly, with the labour agencies—Sorry, I would like to think a little further because it is quite a complicated thing to explain. The gangmaster is no different from any other form of labour agency except he has a long historical connection with supplying agricultural labour, but he does not only supply agricultural labour, he supplies into packhouses which may or may not be registered to agriculture and the people may or may not be counted, and this you already know. He may well be supplying into a whole range of industries. If we are going to define gangmasters as people who are specifically supplying labour into packhouses, whether or not they are assigned to agriculture, having a holding number, if we define it as that then the people going there can be counted because already the law exists that whenever a grower takes on the services of a gangmaster, as I have defined, then they have to inform the Inland Revenue of the name of that gangmaster, the name of the subcontractor, they have to inform the Inland Revenue every time that gangmaster changes the name of his business or takes on any other subcontractors, and they also have to keep weekly or daily records of who go to packhouses. That information already goes to a special tax office in Cardiff. If they are in any doubt about whether these records are accurate or not they have the ability, instead of the gangmaster doing PAYE or National Insurance, they have the authority to make the grower do that. I think there are methods and that is one of them that exists already, if you like, in statute as a legal requirement. There is another area where I think we could get to know more, if you would like me to go on.

  Q273  Chairman: Please.

  Dr Frances: The way that the supermarkets' business models are organised, they have organised themselves to be extremely efficient businesses and, as we know, they are some of the most efficient businesses in the world. We make more profit on our supermarket retailing than any other. One of the ways in which they have been able to achieve this is by minimising the amount of information they have to deal with. They do not suffer from data overload and they do not carry any of the costs of the buffers in the supply chains, the food chains, in which they operate. What this means is since the late 1990s, instead of dealing with 20 suppliers—say this is for lettuce, let us just take one product, or fresh produce—and prior to that they dealt with 40 or 100, they have narrowed down the responsibility of the supplier and they have a system called category management where you appoint one supplier to manage the other suppliers. What has happened is as this goes further and further down the chain there are less and less buffers and the people who are taking that are obviously the people in the fields. One of the ways is one could simply ask the category managers, the grower, and their growers to name who they are working with. A snowball sample is very effective, just simply ask "Who do you deal with? Can we have a list of people you deal with". I would not like to put a number on it but there will only be a handful of category managers of fresh produce and they, in turn, will know their suppliers.

  Q274  Chairman: We live in an age in which we talk increasingly about corporate responsibility and the social responsibility of corporate bodies. Insofar as the supermarkets presumably know that there is an argument about the conditions of people who work in the sector, and insofar as you have said that they have arranged matters, for perfectly good business reasons, where they do not have to ask themselves the question, do you think there is a failure of corporate responsibility there?

  Dr Frances: It is very difficult, is it not? If I were to try and take a balanced view, if I were looking as somebody who is selling food and being the grocer I would ask myself why am I responsible, or how could I be responsible, for something which is so many layers down the food chain. I think in times past we would not have expected people to be responsible in that way but the business models have changed so radically that the grower no longer can produce something which goes to an open market where the price is named and prior to it going he can calculate his labour and pay his labour and that would be finished with. Those systems have changed. Given the desire of the supermarkets to have control throughout the food chain network then I think there has to be some responsibility, but that is a double-edged sword because the last thing that the growers would want is for the supermarkets to have further responsibility because if we were to say "Right, you must do something about labour", already since the late 1990s they have run ethical audits and if one was giving them more authority to delve into the growers' business they would just apply further downward pressure. The issues that you are looking at cannot be solved in that way, neither do I believe they should be solved through further legislation.

  Chairman: We are going to come on to that in a little while.

  Q275  Mrs Shephard: You have described how you think supermarkets' methods and systems have changed and you have also been extremely fair in saying that you think some of this is inevitable. Have you had the chance to look at the way that demand for casual labour, and/or gangmasters who provide it, has changed over the last 30 years?

  Dr Frances: Yes. That is where the heart of the problem lies. As far as we know, because there has been no academic research on it at all and the last person who had any interest in it was a woman called Ivy Pinchbeck in the 1930s who used the parliamentary reports of the 1800s and drew the conclusion that this form of labour had died out except in a few quirky places in Norfolk, of course, which was not the case, and I would suggest that it never died out, that it has been used throughout the UK, it is not just an East Anglian phenomenon, up until the 1970s, when we shopped in greengrocer's shops and, as we probably remember, we brought home potatoes with dirt on them and possibly a few stones in the bag as well, women gangs were used mainly in small gangs, and travellers, and we were prepared to pick goods that went to market. With the—

  Q276  Chairman: Half-term in my school was for potato picking.

  Dr Frances: Absolutely.

  Q277  Mrs Shephard: And early summer holidays and Easter holidays in rural schools in Norfolk right up until the 1970s.

  Dr Frances: Yes.

  Q278  Chairman: A bit of nostalgic detail.

  Dr Frances: Carrot topping and onion peeling were all good jobs for probably under-age children, etc., and so on. If you were a woman and obviously family life was such that there were not many jobs for rural women, and also you had family responsibilities, you had somebody to provide you with transport at 7.30 in the morning, you finished by 3.30, so you saw the children off, you saw your husband off to work and you were home and could do a meal, this was women's work. It was picking and lifting crops and they went to market. Supermarkets discovered in the 1970s we had moved from the High Street to much larger edge of town superstores and we needed different forms of supply. We found that people consumed more and we wanted more added value. We did not want to buy the potatoes with the dirt on them, we wanted them washed and so on. I think this is now a familiar story to us. We know the enormous amount of added value which is done and we are virtually buying stuff which is already prepared. It is not just supermarkets, it is catering as well, the rise of sandwich making and the ingredients into sandwiches and other such prepared meals and so on. At the same time, of course, the supermarkets offered jobs and transport became better. Certainly in East Anglia there were a lot more car owners and why would these women want to do a job when they had better prospects. For people who wanted to work short hours, if you like, this system was a bit of a victim of success really. The women moved into the packhouses and had regular jobs because it was in the packhouses where the washing and preparation of vegetables took place and the added value and more jobs were created. At the same time you still required the temporary labour, and when I say it is temporary or casual, although it is hired on a day-to-day basis there is work for casual labour almost 365 days a year, and you had this increased pressure. The other problem in all this about demand is that casual workers, particularly agricultural workers and packhouse workers have been deemed unskilled. Certainly they are not skilled in the definition of it by having levels of qualification but they are highly skilled in the sense that they do not damage the crop, they have got the aptitude for the work and they themselves can make a profit from the job that they do, being paid on piecework. Where are the extra people going to come from? At a very basic level it takes 20 years to get a human being ready to work. You cannot just conjure up people. We then saw the change in the market and at that point we saw the increase in the SAWS scheme, in the seasonal agricultural workers. There is a demand for more of them to come in and there is a demand, as we have seen, from Eastern Europeans. It is a long trend. The increase in demand for labour in the fields goes back really to the late 1970s.

  Q279  Mrs Shephard: I was interested in what you said about the corporate responsibility question being a difficult question and the fact that the supermarket bosses are rather a long way from what is happening in the fields. On the other hand, there is an interesting and rather unpleasant analogy to be drawn between the preoccupations of supermarkets with humane methods of treating poultry, for example, they are not far from that, and yet if you look at the conditions under which some of the foreign workers are housed and paid and not looked after, they are quite a long way from that. Do you not find that a bit odd?

  Dr Frances: Yes. I would not on any account want to look for excuses or to deny the poor working conditions of both illegal migrant and indigenous labour, and there is no defence against poor conditions, illegal practices, but those practices are not specific to agriculture, they go from boardrooms across a whole wide range of industries. What I feel here is that, yes, the supermarkets, I believe, do have a bigger and better role to play in this but I do not think it is as simple as saying they should audit labour in the same way because there are just so many loopholes at the moment in areas that I think could be dealt with. I do not think any benefit would come. I think in understanding the supermarket business model, to just say to them, "Yes, audit", as they do for their suppliers and a whole host of things, that will not bring about the desired result because that will be pushed on to the grower who is very stretched already. The whole reason that the gang system has grown—Let us face it, what it is is a flexible labour market that, in the quotes of my interviewees, "can be turned on and off like a tap". It is the business model of the supermarket and the nature of their contract with the grower and their success in us purchasing the goods that they put before us that I think is creating the problem. They are creating jobs, in other words, because we want things packaged, because we want another label on things, because we want something more prepared and the labour is being pulled in.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 27 June 2003