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

Examination of Witness (Questions 280-299)

Wednesday 4 June 2003

Dr Jennifer Frances

  Q280  Mrs Shephard: So the responsibility then is ours?

  Dr Frances: No, I do not think it is that, I think it is the industry as a whole. I do not think it is the responsibility of—Do you mean of Government or as consumers?

  Q281  Mrs Shephard: As consumers.

  Dr Frances: Yes, I think so. We are participating in this. I beg your pardon, I misunderstood your question.

  Q282  Mrs Shephard: But consumers cannot know. They are invited to know something about the conditions in which birds and animals are kept, they are invited to know whether products contain GM ingredients, but they are not invited to know whether what they are eating has been harvested by people living 40 to a house.

  Dr Frances: I could not agree more. Is there something that the supermarkets could do? Yes.

  Q283  Mrs Shephard: Or is there something that Government could do?

  Dr Frances: I think that it is very interesting that, of course, there is no brand identity on fresh produce, there is very little information. We have lots of information on how to cook it and how to titivate it and eat it but there is absolutely no information, you are right. Fair Trade Agreements do help in that respect and that is part of the problem. This Committee has heard from many other people, as you yourselves have mentioned today, about the abuses that take place with very vulnerable people and those pressures are coming because the system itself is abusive. If the grower is paying a gangmaster to bring in temporary labour, he is picking the crop, he is sending it into a distribution chain where he believes he has a contract to buy, it is a relation contract, it is not a written contract, and then for whatever reason his goods are rejected, he has no other market in which to sell them and yet he has to carry the cost of all that labour. Is it any wonder that if there are loopholes on who is self-employed, who is a student, who has the right to work, that he uses those loopholes. I think it is much more about the system of doing business. I would not just want to say to them, "You are responsible, sort it out" because I do not think they would take that on board in the right way, perhaps there needs to be a bit more encouragement.

  Q284  Mrs Shephard: You think there is no solution?

  Dr Frances: Well, I do not know. I am not clever enough to hold all the solutions, I am afraid. Where is the gangmasters' forum? We talk about them and there is a whole weight of history against them. It was Lord Shaftesbury who brought in a Bill about separating the sexes of gangs and he used the language of slavery, that in the 1860s they were seen as enslaved people. The language has never moved on.

  Q285  Mrs Shephard: Neither has the practice.

  Dr Frances: That is the problem. I find it very hard when some gangmasters are the chairmen of governors of schools. Are they all horrible, terrible, nasty people?

  Q286  Mrs Shephard: No, of course not, and nobody is claiming that. The point is that this Committee, and indeed your own memorandum has contributed to it, has discovered some pretty unpalatable untruths about the conditions in which people, many of whom are foreign workers, are being employed. You have set the background and it is extremely interesting and a very well written paper. What I am trying to probe with you is this: do we, given all that we know since the practice started in 1820, sit about and say "too bad"? It is an unfair question to you but we will have the opportunity to put it to a minister. If you had a quick reply to that question it would be good and others want to ask you things as well.

  Dr Frances: I suppose what I am saying is I think that the key question is should gangmasters be registered and I have fought with what that might mean. I do not see gangmasters as any different from labour agencies. There is a Labour Agencies' Employment Act, there is a Labour Agencies Inspectorate. Why is it that we have got a whole Committee simply to look at gangmasters? Why are we not looking at casual labour itself because the abuse does not just happen in agriculture, it happens across a whole range of industries, but particularly in the food chain and further up, as we say, in the food processing, in distribution and so on. I know what I am arguing, I am arguing for a wider view of things. Also, why is there not a gangmasters' forum? Why have we not got 20 of them together? Why do we not know about their issues and their solutions? I cannot sit here and truly believe that they set out to abuse people.

  Q287  Patrick Hall: Some do, there is evidence of that.

  Dr Frances: I am not denying that. Seventy to 80% of all fresh produce that we eat goes out through the supermarkets. They use category managers, very, very large professional growers, for that food to be done. Those growers in their turn are employing full-time people and using a range of gangmasters and seasonal agricultural workers. I cannot believe that the whole of that industry is done by just abusive means. Even in the Fresh Produce Study Report, which did the assessment of Operation Gangmaster, although it said it had a huge amount of difficulties in trying to assess that, there is a section where it asked the people it interviewed about their level of satisfaction with their gangmaster employers—admittedly most of these people worked regularly for the same gangmaster and they say that there are difficulties about that—and 80% expressed satisfaction with their employer. What I am saying is I am not here to say there is not abuse, I am not here to say that at all, or that there are not things to be done, but I find it strange that we are not talking to the industry as a whole, we are talking to sections of that industry.

  Q288  Mr Mitchell: I think your research is fascinating, particularly the historical side of it, but how typical is it? Here you are extolling gangmasters and your work is based on one particular family business which had been going for some time in an area where people trusted each other and knew each other enough to have a shakes hand deal and a fairly settled routine and you say 80% expressed satisfaction instead of trying to murder the boss, but how typical is that?

  Dr Frances: This man was prosecuted for fraud some years ago as well. Most gangmasters when they became registered for VAT found that a very difficult system to deal with and it is a slow educative process.

  Q289  Mr Mitchell: Was he standing around when 80% expressed satisfaction?

  Dr Frances: I have no idea, Mr Mitchell. I come here trying to put forward from a research point of view perhaps a more balanced point of view in the sense that I do not represent anybody and at the present moment in this part of the debate I am saying that they were written off with exactly the same language in 1843, they were written off in 1867, and it has gone on and on and on in the way that they are written off, yet we do not seem to mind their contribution in organising these people to lift produce from the land into our mouths. I find it very difficult when I read through that people do not seem to understand the way in which people are paid, there is always the view that the gangmaster literally takes the money from the employee but, as my memorandum points out, that does not seem to be the way in which it works. I suppose what I am trying to say is I really do not feel that there has been a balanced view, a view in the round, of how they operate.

  Q290  Mr Mitchell: Do not rush to form the National Association for the Rehabilitation of Gangmasters just yet because your research is fascinating, and it is one of the few insights we have got, and I get the impression from it that it is changing into almost another of the kind of agencies which proliferate in every line of business from lorry driving to dock work and really the GMA, in the case of your particular study, is becoming just an agency matching people to jobs for its own profit.

  Dr Frances: Yes. The quote—I am not sure if I put it in the memorandum—says "This is a system we use in many, many industries". It is used in chocolate making, it is used in the newspaper industry, he supplied all over the place. That is what I throw back to you.

  Q291  Mr Mitchell: Are they organised like other agencies?

  Dr Frances: Yes, they are a labour agency. That is what I say: what is a gangmaster? I have given a definition for simple use, that it is somebody located with a specific expertise in agricultural labour. I have been on spring onion fields where a gang of 400 have been brought on in the morning, they have been promised a day's work, it is 7.30, but by 12 o'clock Tesco representatives rush around shouting "Stop, stop, the order has been cancelled" basically because they have gone through the checkout and the technology is integrated enough to know this is not required. The ganger—as we know it goes down several layers—is running around trying to find who will go in the meat processing factory, who does not want to work, who wants to go somewhere else, etc., etc. That is an enormous thing to organise. Yes, I am arguing that gangmasters are no different from any other labour agencies. There is a Labour Agency Inspectorate and I believe that the labour agency legislation at this moment is being looked at.

  Q292  Mr Mitchell: That is very interesting, that there should be a sudden cessation of work because Tesco wants the supply curtailed, because I got the impression from your paper that the main reason for switching the tap on and off was seasonal, harvest time or whatever, which must be the same all over the country.

  Dr Frances: No.

  Q293  Mr Mitchell: At one point in the evidence you did seem to be criticising supermarkets for creating jobs. That is not a criticism, that is the thing it pays them for.

  Dr Frances: I believe Mrs Shephard asked me why there are not people in the rural areas and that is because they are now working in supermarkets and—

  Q294  Mrs Shephard: I did not ask that.

  Dr Frances: I am sorry, I beg your pardon.

  Q295  Mr Mitchell: So what changes, apart from that kind of abrupt termination you have just mentioned, have the supermarkets brought? Is it just increased pressure and, therefore, the seasonal verities of harvest and fruit-time do not apply much?

  Dr Frances: No, they do not, there is very little seasonal variation. Supermarkets work very hard with growers to extend the growing seasons, not with genetically modified but with simple plant breeding methods. What is wanted is consistency of supply. I will go back a little. When the supermarkets moved to the edge of town in the 1970s they also put in the latest technology. Our technology in retail is well in advance of any other country. Myself and Dr Garnsey, who is here, were invited to an e-sector conference by the Brookings Institution, which is the think-tank in America, and the OECD and we were the only group from the UK asked to give a comparative study in retailing because our systems in the supermarkets here and their uses of technology for ordering are so advanced. When the bar codes are scanned that data is used to form the order for the grower. They are automatically connected. They started to be connected through EDI (electronic data interchange) in the late 1970s, and for growers that was extremely expensive because they each needed a piece of software, so if you had five supermarkets you had five business systems being run by the grower. There is a new generation bar code coming in now and systems are being altered. For example, it is a lot easier for smaller growers to join in because you can do things over the internet; you do not need the proprietary data. What happens is that these orders are made and it used to be a 24-hour lag. It is now down to ten in the evening for six in the morning, so these orders are very tight. What happens with the supermarket is that you have a relational contract with the grower. You say, "Yes, put your carrots in the ground; I will buy them". You keep reviewing that and it goes on and you go down to three months, you go down to a month, you look at the weather forecast for the week, you look at how people are buying vegetables and so on. This is for every produce. Then you start looking at the data of people going through the checkout on the day. That is how sharp it is and that is why the labour needs to be turned on and off by tap. Literally, as we buy, a job is at stake. This labour scheduling is extremely tight and that is why workers are being pulled in from wherever they can come to meet this flow and nobody wants to carry that.

  Q296  Ms Atherton: Were you looking specifically only at East Anglia, because the area that I represent is Cornwall and our peak season is not at the same time as East Anglia? Indeed, the winter months are the time that we are wanting seasonal workers and that is when we have a particular problem. One of the reasons initially that I brought this whole issue to the attention of the Committee was that we were having people literally laid off in a way that you are not talking about and that does not have any resonance for me. The people in Cornwall are coming in to do cauliflowers and they are picking bulbs. I will accept that the local people will not do this. This was traditional work that is now not wanted. The people of Cornwall in the nineties moved into the packing houses; we are a few years behind everywhere else, okay, and so there is a real labour shortage, but the farmers are saying to me that they do know who is legal or illegal. They have no idea. They are presented with a range of different names, they are told categorically by the gang masters that they do not want the supermarkets or anyone else on their backs and they are just going to take whoever comes along and be grateful for it because there is just not this tap that you are talking about. They are at the end of the line, so whoever turns up in the white mini van is the person they are going to employ that day. I just ask if you have had other experiences in other parts of the country because it did not resonate.

  Dr Frances: I am sorry; perhaps I am not being very clear, but I would say that that is exactly the case, is it not? I hear what you say and I say that for the people that I have interviewed in the areas that I have been to that is the case. There is no way that the gangmasters can check these documents and, even speaking to the Labour Agencies Inspectorate, they say they cannot check these documents either when they go in. It is terribly hard to know whether someone has a forged document and, more to the point, there are so many variations on who needs to have national insurance or not and there are so many loopholes. Because of this pressure of requiring people on the day you take who and what comes. I do not know the Cornwall area. All I can say, because this is not an area which attracts funding and therefore the research that I have done into the agricultural aspects has not been funded; I have done it myself, is that I did run a small pilot study where I contacted every representative of the Rural and Agricultural and Allied Workers Union who, as you know, are part of the T&G, and asked them if they had casual work in their area and everybody said they did. In speaking to people in various parts of the country, speaking to growers and so on, and I have spoken to more growers across the country than I have gangmasters, they certainly do use these systems and it is as you describe. What have I misrepresented to you?

  Q297  Ms Atherton: That people would switch from one area to another. If you are only picking bulbs it is not the same intensity, and so there are differences.

  Dr Frances: We have a lot of food processing. Thirty 5% of manufacturing in the east of England region, that is the six counties of the east of England, is in food processing, so there are a lot of alternative jobs to go to.

  Q298  Mr Drew: We have a notion about the care of animals now, and Gillian was picking this up on the welfare issue, but we also have a notion about traceability. Why can we not have traceability in terms of this? If something has been proved to have been provided illegally, why can we not prosecute the supermarket in the same way that we would do with a piece of meat? What is the difference?

  Dr Frances: In a nutshell, none, and it is absolutely right. Since the 1990 Food Act on traceability the powers have been given to the supermarkets and that is why they have such penetration in the name of consumer safety all the way down the food chain. There is absolutely no reason that you could not. The key thing is how whoever is doing that will know what is a forged document or not a forged document. Also, I could go and say, "I am self-employed". If you are dealing with 1,000 people on a daily basis and you are keeping a daily record of their work, which may change in the middle of the day, how do you envisage who is going to look at that document every day or question everybody? If I say, "I am self-employed and therefore I do not want you to take my national insurance contributions", how is that going to work?

  Q299  Mr Drew: My answer to that is that if you are dealing with thousands of animals you cannot actually answer when people say, "This is a legitimate source", and if we choose to buy from abroad it comes at a cost. I am quite impressed at the moves we have made towards traceability in terms of the meat supply and yet when we come to human beings and we seem to have dramatic problems. I think the dramatic problems are because certain people want to turn a blind eye because it makes it far easier for them to justify the low price of food. If they do not ask the question then they do not have to have any unpleasant answers and I just think there is a very clear parallel there, that if someone wanted to get in here and afterwards say to the supermarkets, "You cannot justify that that was farmed legitimately. You will be fined not just now but regularly and the fines will increase", they would get their act together very quickly.

  Dr Frances: That may be the way. All I would say is that of course with animals we have tagged them.

  Mr Drew: We will have ID cards soon under new Labour.

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