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 aspectswaste
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 hereno 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
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 themthe 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
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 dealis 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
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
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.