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

Examination of Witness (Questions 300-312)

Wednesday 4 June 2003

Dr Jennifer Frances

  Q300  Paddy Tipping: One of the images is of a hi-tech retail sector, where I know a little bit about the technology. I find it fascinating to compare that end of the market with some of the practices that appear to be going on in the pack houses and the fields. You would have thought that good practice, high technology practice, at the customer end would eventually work its way down to the employment end, but why has that not happened?

  Dr Frances: Because what we have seen is what in the jargon is called muda, which means waste. It is a Japanese word for waste. Supermarkets have embraced that term, the eradication of waste in all its aspects—waste of time, waste of effort, waste of duplication, so at this end of the system they have eradicated anything which needs a repeat of anything and you push that down the supply chain. The heap has to land up somewhere and that is what you are looking at. The brutality starts with the system here—no written contract, no agreement to supply, very nice and answerable to shareholders at this end; I totally agree. At the same time you are actually demanding that more be done to produce in a certain area. Something has got to happen somewhere. It is a bufferless system until you get to the buffer, which is the people.

  Q301  Paddy Tipping: So is it a kind of slavery, to use your word?

  Dr Frances: Nobody could argue against it. Of course there are abuses, of course there are people living in poor conditions, but all I can say is that I have been in the hostels, I have eaten the food, I have slept in the hostels. There are people trying to give good jobs to people who want to do them and I feel that to just come at this totally from that area, although I know the Committee has said that there are good gangmasters and so on, is not on. There are people who are doing their best.

  Q302  Paddy Tipping: Let us pursue that then. You talked to us a little while ago about a gangmasters' forum. Presumably if DEFRA were minded they could set up a forum like that and they could get 20 or so good practice gangmasters together and develop best practice and roll it forward.

  Dr Frances: Here is a role for the supermarkets. I do not think DEFRA should be paying. I do not think we should be paying. I think the supermarkets should put their hand in their pocket and they should pay. They have plenty of organisations that represent them—the British Retail Consortium, the Fresh Produce Association. This is all their voice. Where is the other voice? We could also perhaps learn. As you say, there is best practice. As a researcher I find it extremely difficult to comprehend looking at a problem where you do not talk to the people who either are the problem or who deal with the problem.

  Q303  Paddy Tipping: So one of your prescriptions would be to say to Mr Sainsbury or retailers in general, "You are concerned about quality", picking up Mr Drew's point about traceability, "You can raise standards and customers will want to do this"?

  Dr Frances: Absolutely, and is there not a greater role there? For example, with short-lived produce, such as strawberries or asparagus, why can that not come under fair trading issues? What can you do with a whole crop of strawberries rotting? The abuse arises because you have paid the labour, and then when you get the opportunity not to pay them I would suggest that you see that as clawback.

  Q304  David Taylor: I have just checked on the broadcasting statements because I am about to confess something. When I had a proper job I was an accountant and Dr Frances asked a moment or two ago, perhaps rhetorically, who would check on how well grounded was an assertion by someone that they were self-employed. I came into extensive contact with an industry that was geographically more widespread, that was on a grander scale, where the issues were even more profound, where there was a seasonal dimension to it, and where substantial progress has been made over a generation; it is called the construction industry. Why should this particular industry be any different in terms of the difficulty of producing a formal framework which can be used as evidence of, for instance, the lack of a need to deduct national insurance or whatever it might be?

  Dr Frances: I cannot answer that. Why not? Yes, I agree. One of the difficulties that has come with the workers is that there is the seasonal agricultural workers' scheme and of course they go direct into the growers, and so the remaining pot for the gangmasters to deal with and to run the business with, which is demanded by the grower,—the gangmaster would not exist if he did not have anywhere to deal—is the people who do not wish to be traced. In a way it goes back to Mr Drew's issue, that perhaps we need some further traceability of people.

  Q305  David Taylor: It is not insuperable and it is not intractable.

  Dr Frances: I am not an expert in that area, so I could not answer. When I say, "Why not?", you are an accountant and if you know it can be done, I agree with you.

  Q306  Alan Simpson: What I was fascinated by was your invitation to us to view things in the round and address the whole issue about casual labour and to say it was quite wrong to talk about business gangmasters as terrible people. In a way though the same argument was made in relation to the good supplier of private multiply-occupied properties or the good factory owner in times of no factory regulations, and yet the way we dealt with that was to address the issue of exploitation, in housing, in employment rights, in health and safety and so on. That gave birth to the origins of the Factory Acts. It gave birth to setting minimum housing standards in national legislation, and yet you appear to back away from coming to the same sort of conclusion in relation to how we deal with the exploitation of casual labour. Why is it that you feel we should place so much faith in a voluntary agreement in the face of our national experience, which is that when you place that sort of faith in something it gets abused and you actually encourage the abusers to find loopholes, and you duck away from the question that was pitched to you first of all, which was, why is it not our responsibility here?

  Dr Frances: I think it is your responsibility to investigate the issues, definitely, and possibly even to legislate. You are a legislative body. I would first like to say for the record that I do not wish to duck away from anything about stopping abuse in employment issues. Why would anybody want to? I certainly would not want to. What I am trying to get at here is that I think this whole issue would never have been looked at if it were not for the fact that there now is a stronger link with illegal migrant workers and that is why it has been looked at. If you had come here ten years before I think it would be very interesting. Why was it not done ten years ago? Why did nobody want to look at it 20 years ago? They did not. I think it is because people shy away from this. There are migrant workers in this country because we need them, because there are jobs. These jobs have been created by the food chain network. It is not alone. There is obviously the care industry and other things, but this is the area I know about. That is why you are looking at it and that is why there is an issue, because it is difficult. Something needs to be said, I suggest, in the public arena about illegal immigrants and so on. For that reason I think breath needs to be drawn and, as you rightly say, I want the situation to be considered in the round. I have not heard or read anything that I have understood in the evidence that has been given so far, other than saying, yes, there are some good gangmasters, and it is all centred on abuse. Undoubtedly there is abuse and I agree with the witnesses who have given evidence that says it happens when people have subcontracted and further subcontracted out and there is less and less control by the grower with the first gangmaster with whom he probably has a good relationship. I do not want abuse of anybody. I do not want people living in terrible conditions, but perhaps what we need to own up to is that we have migrant workers who we need.

  Q307  Alan Simpson: Can I just come back on this? I am not trying to shelter behind a presumption that we have an issue which is only an issue because we have exploitation of slaves rather than peasants. I am just as concerned with the question of why we are sitting here colluding with the exploitation of peasants. The issue for me is about how do we tackle exploitation, and I am not getting from you any indication about the remedies you would bring forward about how we address that exploitation. We have been faced with witness after witness who has said, "I do not know. We think there may be but there may not be, but we will not come up with ideas about how we tackle the issue of exploitation". What do we do?

  Dr Frances: You have had views from people who have all represented a corner, so again I do not think that the sustaining of the Agricultural Wages Board Order was something that was useful. That was done by the T&G and I have complete admiration for the T&G in wanting to look after a union that really has very few members who could not afford to do it. Throughout the nineties when the wages councils were abolished, they took their corner and represented them and sustained the Agricultural Wages Board Order, which was vital, even though most of the workers are paid on piece work and it bears very little relationship to that. Now that seems to be an area that they want to sustain. I think things are perhaps covered by the minimum wage. That would simplify things. What I am saying to you is that I think you have the legislation, I think there are enough government departments and you have the Inland Revenue. It all exists; that is what I am saying. Can you say to me how this legislation would look? For example, how are you going to define in legislation what is a gangmaster, but you are going to legislate against him? I do not mean to be confrontational. I am here as an academic. That is my area. That is how I look at things. You cannot move anywhere if you cannot define what it is. I do not believe there is a definition for a gangmaster.

  Q308  Ms Atherton: I suppose what makes me feel uncomfortable is that you are speaking as an academic and I am sitting here as a Member of Parliament and it is all very comfortable, but if you are an illegal migrant who is here in the thrall of a gangmaster, then it is totally irrelevant to you whether we in Westminster have enacted all the legislation that might be needed to protect you because you will not go to anyone to tell them of the fear and the life that you are living. Surely there is an imperative on this Committee to be doing something about that? As an academic, do you not feel that you need to be highlighting that as well?

  Dr Frances: I think that I have just done that. I have just said that the issue is about migrant workers. If we allowed migrant workers in with work permits they could no doubt work, but that is an uncomfortable situation. Curry said that we need 50,000, and bringing in people in on SAWS does not really help the issue because in some senses they will be hived off. What you need to say is, "We need migrant workers". That is all I can say to you. I have no difficulty in saying that. If they also are seeking asylum I have no difficulty with that either. That is the issue.

  Q309  Paddy Tipping: I do not find it a confrontational discussion; I find it very stimulating, because what we have been told up to now is, "You have got to have a licence; you have got to regulate". Your interesting paper goes back to the 1867 Act which I got out of the Library the other night and had a good pore over, but in effect licensing has not worked in the past. I am not clear that since 1867 licensing has been brought up to date. That is the only piece of legislation.

  Dr Frances: In 1867 they said that because gangmasters were such terrible villains women had to be under an overseer who was a woman. Men and women were not allowed to work together. I do not know of any other statute in law that says men and women cannot work together. I am not a historian, and again I have not had that much time, but I have never found a prosecution under this Act. I dare say some took place. The gangmaster had to appear every six months before a justice of the peace, was not allowed to sell alcohol, had to prove himself a very trustworthy person to be in charge of these people. This law stayed on the statute books until 1967. I have interviewed gangmasters who were still buying the licence up until 1967. They did not appear before magistrates then, of course; they just went down to the local council office. They knew they had to pay a shilling, the same price as it was in 1867, so if we want to fill the statute books with those sorts of laws we can carry on, or we can address the problems.

  Q310  Paddy Tipping: What you are saying to us then is, "If you had a statutory system would it have any effect?". What is your judgment on that?

  Dr Frances: I go back to the prime thing: surely, to create a law you would have to define what a gangmaster is, but even if you did that you have then set them aside, outside society, outside anybody else providing labour in this country.

  Q311  Paddy Tipping: Let us pick up the different policy instruments that you have talked to us about. You have talked to us about a best practice forum, a gangmasters' forum, run by the supermarkets themselves. You advocate that that would be helpful. Secondly, you have said that in organisational terms the gangmaster system is really a kind of employment agency and we ought to look at how existing legislation there interrelates and try and shape that, and you have talked to us about a migrant workers' system. If those three things were taken together with greater alacrity by some of the agencies involved, would that resolve the problems?

  Dr Frances: It might be a way forward. I could not possibly answer how effective it might be but I certainly would think that you should talk to the people who are involved in this business and stop labelling them as one cohesive illegal group. The words "gangmaster" and "illegal" just go together. I think I would find it very difficult to run a business as a very ethical business, like a supermarket, which is feeding the nation. I would find that very difficult to cope with. Yes, you have summarised those things. All I can say is that I do not know what results they would bring but I think it is a way forward.

  Q312  Paddy Tipping: Is there anything else you would do?

  Dr Frances: I think more could be done. Ethical trading is a way forward as well. If we want to continue the system where particularly fresh produce goods are commissioned for growth by the supermarkets, although the Competition Commission looked into all of this and came up with no real recommendations, this is the area. It spent two years on it and could only come up with a code. We have a group in East Anglia called Food Forum, which growers and farmers vote on and they voted that the code was absolutely useless. If supermarkets do not want produce to go to market where the price is set by the buyers and sellers, and the grower knows that he could at least recoup something, then I think they have to take responsibility. That can be through their organisations. They do not have to do it personally, but they could do it through the British Retail Consortium and they could put money in to allow these people to come together and perhaps we could start to learn some ways forward.

  Chairman: Dr Frances, thank you very much. You have given us some extremely helpful and probably quite challenging evidence, which is what we like. What is more, you have managed to provoke the revelation of the dark past of Mr Taylor as well who, for the record, used to be an accountant. In Harry Potter, if I recall, somebody asked the family that Harry was staying with were all their family wizards and they said, no, one of them was an accountant but they tried not to talk about him. Thank you very much indeed.

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