Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by The British Retail Consortium (BRC) (V2)

  The British Retail Consortium (BRC) represents the whole range of retailers including large multiples, department stores and independent shops, selling a wide selection of products through centre of town, out of town, rural and virtual stores. In December 2001, the retail sector employed some 2.8 million people (11% of the workforce) and retail sales were £221 billion in 2001. Grocery retailing is significant in macro economic terms and was valued in June 2001 at £103 billion.

  1.  The British Retail Consortium (BRC) welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee's inquiry into the activities of "gangmasters" in the agricultural and horticultural industries.

  2.  The BRC understands the reasons why primary producers' use of gangmasters is a necessity as casual labour is crucial to the timely harvesting of many crops. While most employment agencies operate entirely within the law, food retailers share the concerns that have been raised about some operators who have been found to have employed illegal immigrants and benefit claimants, and who have failed to comply with the requirements of the Working Time Directive and the National Minimum Wage.

  3.  While the sector does not have the resources to act as a food chain policeman checking the validity of documents, food retailers have typically introduced procedures designed to prevent the use of illegal practices within their supply systems. Such procedures include:

    (i)  The use of "Supplier Approvals." These are designed both to assess the technical capability of a supplier and the "responsibility" of a supplier in a wider sense.

    (ii)  Specifications and Terms and Conditions require retail suppliers to adhere to all UK and EU legislation.

    (iii)  Many retailers also regularly remind their produce suppliers of their obligations under employment legislation, including the need for them to play a role in ensuring that illegal labour is not used (by checking National Insurance Numbers, Work Permits, etc).

    (iv)  Many food retailers are carrying out social assessments of suppliers (often based on the Ethical Trading Initiative Code); part of these assessments cover Health and Safety and Working Time Directive requirements.

    (v)  Food retailers may require that their suppliers use only agencies "approved" by the Department of Trade and Industry when sourcing overseas casual labour. All such suppliers are required to pay at least the minimum agricultural wage as determined by the Agricultural Wages Board.

  4.  The BRC recognises that there are sometimes acute shortages for seasonal and casual labour that can only be filled by using casual staff. While the accession of Central and Eastern European Countries may improve the situation in the future, this is an area where Government can play a major role in ensuring that sufficient labour is available and regulations are adhered to. This requires inter-departmental co-operation and action.

  5.  The Committee will wish to note that within the fresh produce sector, a number of initiatives have developed to address the issue of illegal employment practices, with main ones being the Fresh Produce Consortium and National Farmers' Union codes. The Ethical Trading Initiative has established a working group to look at the issues in this area and is made up of a wide range of stakeholders including retailers, trade unions, the NFU, Defra, the Home Office and the ETI.

9 April 2003

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