Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Fourteenth Report


What is a gangmaster?

1. The agriculture and horticulture industries have used gangs of casual workers to meet irregular demand for labour since the early nineteenth century. The term gangmaster was traditionally used to describe the self-appointed manager who took charge of a gang of workers. The Agricultural Gangs Act of 1867 defined a gangmaster as a person "who hires Children, Young Persons, or Women with a view to their being employed in Agricultural Labour on Lands not in his own Occupation". The gangmaster negotiated directly with the farmer over payment for the work required. His profits were usually made by taking piecework from the farmer and paying wages to the workers in the gang.

2. The term gangmaster continues to be used to describe an individual who supplies casual labour to the agriculture and horticulture industry.[1] There is no surviving legal definition of a gangmaster and the distinction between a gangmaster and what would generally now be described as an employment agency is not entirely clear. The term is used to describe a wide range of businesses. Some self-described gangmasters have high-street offices and supply casual labour to other industries, such as factories and warehouses. These include a few large organisations supplying hundreds of workers on a daily basis and with turnovers of millions of pounds.[2] Similarly, others operate on a less formal basis, relying on personal connections and word of mouth.

Changes in the supply of and demand for casual labour

3. Although it is clear that the use of gangmasters in the agricultural sector is not new, there is evidence to suggest that the demand for labour has changed over the last twenty years, and the supply of workers to meet it has changed accordingly. We recognise the importance to the viability of the agriculture and horticulture industry of a flexible supply of labour throughout the year, especially in the light of greater calls for supply flexibility from the supermarkets.

4. The relationship between supermarkets, their customers and their suppliers is a key factor in the change in demand for labour. Over time supermarkets have stopped using wholesale markets and have begun to buy directly from suppliers, reducing the number of suppliers with which they contract over time. Consumers now demand cleaned and packed salads, fruit and vegetables. The supermarkets which sell this ready-packed produce are now open seven days a week most days of the year. The growing season has also been extended as a result of changes in plant breeding methods.

5. The net effect of these changes has been that the work required to provide fresh produce to supermarkets has changed over the last twenty years. It is less dependent on the seasons and is not confined to day-time work picking vegetables. As a result, what was once work that suited second earners in families, usually women in rural areas who could combine the hours with family responsibilities, became less attractive to those who had traditionally carried it out. Other factors, such as increasing car use, meant that more attractive jobs, often in the supermarkets themselves, became available to those who had traditionally provided the main source of gang labour. Students, another source of gang labour, also began to find more attractive temporary jobs in the expanding service sector.

6. Packhouses require a supply of labour, sometimes twenty-four hours per day, and for most of the year. Local communities can no longer supply the volume of labour and flexibility of labour required. This has led to workers being brought in from large towns and cities, and increasingly from abroad, to meet the shortfall. The work of the gangmasters has had to change as a result.

The role of the gangmaster

Gangmasters play an essential role in the supply of fresh produce. In a typical scenario a supermarket ordering system will identify an increase in demand for a particular product. For example, the demand for salad items increases during spells of hot weather and the supermarket may be running low on its supply of prepared and packed lettuce. The supermarket then places an order with one of its suppliers to provide the required number of bags of lettuce.

In this scenario, the packhouse which will fulfil the order identifies that it needs 30 staff for one day's work to pack the number of bags requested by the supermarket. The packhouse owner will contact a local gangmaster and negotiate a fixed fee to provide the necessary labour. The gangmaster will contact potential workers from a pool of contacts. He will contact each worker and make arrangements to transport them to the packhouse. These people will be directly employed by the gangmaster who is responsible for operating a PAYE system and ensuring that the terms and conditions which he provides comply with the relevant employment legislation.

It is not uncommon for the provision of labour to be sub-contracted further. For example, if the gangmaster in this scenario only has 18 people available to work at short notice, he may sub-contract with another gangmaster or gangmasters to provide the other 12 workers required. The relationship between the original gangmaster and the gangmasters to whom he sub-contracts the supply of the additional labour will be similar to that between the lettuce producer and the first gangmaster. That is, the first gangmaster will pay a fixed price to the subsequent gangmaster to provide the necessary labour. The first gangmaster will probably take a cut. The responsibility for the terms and conditions of the extra workers falls to the second gangmaster.

In some cases such a scenario will involve a number of sub-contracting exercises. Thus the link between the product supplier and the labour employed may be three or four contractual relationships removed.

Our inquiry

7. There have been longstanding concerns that some gangmasters are engaged in illegal activity ranging from non-payment of taxes and National Insurance, to recruiting people from abroad who are working in the United Kingdom illegally. Sir Richard Body, former MP for Boston and Skegness, repeatedly highlighted criminal activities by certain gangmasters in his constituency. In an adjournment debate in 1997, he described abuses by gangmasters and intimidation of those who spoke out against them.[3] Similarly, an investigation for the BBC's Panorama programme in June 2000 also raised awareness of the problems and particularly the conditions in which workers were being housed.

8. Recent anecdotal evidence passed to members of the Committee suggested that these problems are getting worse. We therefore decided to examine the extent of the problems and the Government response to them. The terms of reference of our inquiry were:

    "The Committee will examine the activities of 'gangmasters' in the agricultural and horticultural industries. It will in particular consider the activities of some gangmasters in employing illegal immigrants and benefit claimants, and who flout the Working Time Directive and the National Minimum Wage. The impact of illegal activities on:
  • legitimate gangmasters;
  • farmers and other hirers;
  • the competitiveness and viability of certain agricultural practices; and
  • supermarkets and other retailers will also be considered.

    The Committee will also look at what might be done to combat illegal activity by gangmasters, and to improve the lot of casual workers".[4]

9. We received written evidence from 17 individuals and organisations. We took oral evidence between May and June 2003 from a range of organisations including the principal trades union; the Fresh Produce Consortium; the main enforcement agencies, under the aegis of Operation Gangmaster; and Lord Whitty, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at Defra. We also took oral evidence from Dr Jennifer Frances from the Institute of Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge.

10. In addition to the public oral evidence sessions, representatives of the Committee also met privately with five gangmasters at two meetings held at Cambridge and Westminster. We are grateful to all those who gave evidence to the Committee, particularly Dr Jennifer Frances who arranged our meeting in Cambridge and those gangmasters who took time from their work to discuss their experiences with us.

1   In some parts of the country, we were told that the term 'ganger' is used. The terms appear to be interchangeable. Back

2   Ev 66, para. 2 Back

3   HC Deb 21 May 1997 cc 677-684 Back

4   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Press Notice of 17 March 2003 Back

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