Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Citizens Advice (V5)


  1.1  The Citizens Advice service welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into the activities of gangmasters in the agricultural and horticultural industries.

  1.2  This submission describes Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) evidence on problems experienced by people working for gangmasters in agricultural, horticultural and other sectors, particularly food processing. The evidence has been compiled by:

    —  Citizens Advice, which represents over 500 CABx in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Together CABx provide high quality advice and information from over 2000 service outlets. Bureaux helped people with almost six million enquiries in 2001-02. Over 600,000 enquiries concerned employment problems and 573,000 enquiries concerned housing issues. CAB clients are often living on a very low income or welfare benefits; and

    —  the East Region of Citizens Advice. The East Region office is one of eight field offices of Citizens Advice throughout England and Wales. The East Region of Citizens Advice covers the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and the unitary authority of Peterborough. There are 66 main Bureau situated in the region alongside numerous outreach venues. This region comprises large rural areas.

  1.3  Most of the CAB evidence on problems experienced by people working for gangmasters has been reported from the East Region. The main areas of the East region in which gangmasters appear to be active are Suffolk and Norfolk—the local economies in these areas are reliant on agricultural and horticultural industries. There is however also evidence from other parts of the Region such as Bedfordshire. And more widely CABx in the South East, Midlands, Bristol, South and North Wales and Northern Ireland have all reported problems of a similar kind to those reported by CABx in the East region.

  1.4  The evidence used to prepare this submission is taken from a number of sources including individual case reports provided by CABx; interviews with bureau managers and advisors; and interviews with interpreters who provide translation services to EU nationals seeking advice from bureau.


  2.1  The Committee has been established to undertake an inquiry into gangmasters in the agricultural and horticultural industries. Evidence from CABx indicates that gangmasters commonly present as employment agencies who bring workers from other countries, most notably Portugal, to work in a variety of low paid jobs. Typically the agency offers a six month contract including return travel to the UK, with accommodation provided, for which deductions from the salary are made. Provision of transport to and from the workplace also seems to form a feature of these contracts. Our evidence suggests that the use of such gangmasters in providing employment in the agricultural and horticultural industries is prevalent. The following case, involving extremely low wages, is quite common:

    —  A CAB in Norfolk reports a case of a group of Portuguese nationals who are paid £3.00 to cut 1,000 daffodils.

  2.2  However gangmasters often seem to be used to provide a labour force to the food processing industry, this is outside the scope of the inquiry but often food processing is found in rural areas. We would therefore recommend that consideration is given by the inquiry to the use of gangmasters in food processing industries.

  2.3  We have also identified similar problems with gangmaster practices on the part of agencies providing workers for jobs in catering and cleaning, including particularly catering and cleaning at motorway service stations and manufacturing of ceramics. It therefore seems likely that any of the Committee's findings and any recommendations for action on tackling the practices of employment agencies bringing migrant workers to the UK could also be relevant to other employment sectors since it seems likely that these agencies deal in more than one sector.

  2.4  In the rest of this submission we describe examples of some of the problems CABx have come across, issues to do with recruitment contracts and processes and sources of advice and then go on to suggest areas the Committee could look at in recommendations.


  3.1  CAB evidence on the problems of gangmasters primarily concerns the problems experienced by workers brought to this country to work. CABx have increasingly reported cases where they have been approached by an individual worker for advice on their rights. Often in such cases many other workers are similarly affected. In this area employment issues such as pay and terms and conditions are strongly interconnected with housing related enquiries, this is due of course to the fact that accommodation seems to be normally provided by gangmasters, it can often be of poor quality and significant deductions are made from low pay for the accommodation costs. When a problem arises with the job, the pay or the accommodation the worker is uncertain of their rights to remain either in the UK or in the accommodation.

    —  A CAB in Suffolk reports 100 Portuguese workers who were working in food processing. When they were sacked by the agency who employed them they were all facing immediate eviction.

    —  A CAB in Cambridgeshire reported that they had been contacted by a number of Portuguese nationals working on the land for a local employer. The employer provided acommodation, some of it in partititioned containers which had no water supply. Some people were accommodated in caravans and some in houses. Rent and transport are deducted from the workers' wages before they are paid. One client showed the CAB a payslip where the gross wages were £164 per week, from which rent was deducted at £58.75. Another client was paid £83.85 and the rent deducted was £80.00. The workers are also made to sign agreements to repay recruitment costs of up to £100 if they leave within six months. The CAB was concerned that most of the workers were not able to read the agreements as they did not speak English. It also seemed that they signed the agreements before the details, for example about pay and deductions, had been completed.

  3.2  CAB evidence suggests that often the gangmaster, or agent, is making charges to the worker to find them work and taking deposits or bonds for accommodation. Alternatively the worker may face charges if they terminate their contract early. For example:

    —  A CAB in the Midlands reported that a woman from the Ukraine had been recruited by an agency who charged her £600 for "documentation" which she had never seen. The wages were less than the national minimum wage, being paid on piecework rates. Accommodation was provided in portacabins, with one kitchen between 18 people which had only one cooker. There was only one toilet.

    —  Another CAB in the Midlands reported a case of a Polish student and his girlfriend who were found work on a farm by an English organisation which arranges work for foreign students. The couple paid a fee to the agency. Their wages were less than the Agricultural Wages Board rates, and when they complained they were told to leave the job and the accommodation which came with it. The couple had to leave England and return to Poland as they ran out of money. Circumstances like this provide significant opportunities for unscrupulous employers to exploit workers who would be unable to seek redress.

  3.3  CAB evidence is that workers' employment rights are often infringed over deductions, lack of wage slips, lack of sick pay or lack of minimum wage or paid holiday. The following examples illustrate some of these issues:

    —  A Portuguese couple were working for an employment agency doing land work. When they changed agencies they both discovered they had had four days' wages deducted from their salaries (equally £291.00 each). When they queried this, the agency said they couldn't understand their complaint due to the language difficulties.

    —  A Portuguese client from Norfolk was paid no statutory sick pay during periods of ill health, his wage slip showed rent still being deducted and therefore he owed money to the agency each week.

    —  A Portuguese client from Norfolk came to seek advice from the Inland Revenue on his employment issues. When he contacted the Inland Revenue, they had no record of him working in the UK.

    —  A CAB in Kent reported that a young man from the Slovak Republic had been working on a local farm for several months when he was asked to leave. He had been brought to the UK by a "charity". He received no holiday pay.

  3.4  The workers also seem to be very vulnerable when there is a dispute or a problem. For example:

    —  A CAB in Dorset reported that a young man from Portugal had sought advice when he was sacked from working on a farm. He had been told to drive a tractor for which he was not qualified or experienced. He had a crash which caused damage to a greenhouse. He was asked to pay £700 in damages. When he refused to pay he was sacked and thrown out of the caravan he had been given to live in. He had no funds to return to Portugal. The CAB had observed that a number of local employers were bringing over significant numbers of workers from Europe, possibly via an agency.

  3.5  In terms of housing related issues, most clients are informed by their employers that they are in "tied accommodation" and therefore will be immediately evicted upon loss of employment.

    —  A Portuguese client from Bedford signed to work for a Northampton agency. When the contract ended the housing ended as well with the client being given only one day's notice to quit.

    —  A Portuguese couple advised by a bureau in Suffolk were employed cutting parsnips and carrots. Another family member was also working for the same agency and he became homeless immediately once his job had been terminated, the family are concerned that they will also be evicted immediately and had sought advice from the bureau.

  3.6  The tenancy agreements CABx have seen suggest that agency workers often in fact have assured shorthold tenancies and therefore should be entitled to in the very least two months' notice. However, in many cases our clients have no copies of tenancy agreements or rent books.

  3.7  Most accommodation seems to be provided in Houses with Multiple Occupation (HMO's) or portacabins and caravans with up to eight people sharing one room. Often the accommodation seems to be of very poor quality. The use of HMO's in particular appears to be a way of increasing income to the agencies, as illustrated below.

    —  A CAB in Suffolk advised a group of Portuguese workers who were housed in a holiday camp who charge the agency £70 per week for each unit of accommodation. The agency placed five workers in each unit, charging each employee £35 per week.

    —  A CAB in Northern Ireland reported that four Portuguese workers were having deductions of £30 per week each for rent on a flat they had to share. The flat was only suitable for 2/3 people and a rent of £120 per week was significantly higher than local rents ordinarily would be.

    —  A CAB in Bristol reported a case of a Portuguese worker recruited in Portugal by an agency to come to the UK to pack mushrooms. Bonuses were offered for packing certain quantities, but no worker was able to achieve a bonus. Accommodation arranged by the agency involved 27 people living in one house. The CAB client was living in a house with seven other people, but there were only two beds, others slept on mattresses on the floor. Hours averaged 55 per week and with the travelling time to and from work making it difficult for the man to shop for food. The man was paid £4.10 per hour with £35 deducted for accommodation per week.

    —  A CAB in Hampshire reported that British Airways at Gatwick had referred some Portuguese agricultural workers to them for advice. The living conditions at their place of work were so bad that they had returned to Gatwick airport in tears after two days. The workers claimed the accommodation did not match the description they had been given in Portugal and they found many of the workers already there had not been paid for a month. The bureau reported the case to the local environmental health officer.

    —  A CAB in Dorset reported a case where a Russian student had come to work in the UK on a seasonal agricultural workers Home Office approved scheme. After four months she left as the working and living conditions were so dreadful.

  3.8  In addition the use of HMO's causes friction and tension in the accommodation with clients describing to bureau conditions whereby violence and the threat of violence exists with some leaving the accommodation because of abuse.

  3.9  The use of interlinked employment and housing contacts leads to an infringement of the national minimum wage due to the deductions made for accommodation. Tenancy agreements seen by bureau also show that housing costs can be increased by the agency at any time.

  A tenancy agreement obtained from an agency from Norfolk describes the charges as, "a minimum of £45.00 per week plus one payment of £40.00 which is a refundable deposit. This sum will be deducted from the wages the licensee receives from the agency.

  3.10  One of the advisers from a bureau in Suffolk when asked described the issue in the following way:

    "Many of our clients have been working in a chicken processing factory. The factory is 40 miles away and they are bussed there and back but a charge is made for transport and an amount is deducted from their wages to cover this. They receive an hourly rate for the work they do which is just above the National Minimum Wage, but also deducted from their wages is a charge for accommodation which, from the evidence we have seen (wage slips) are erratic amounts".

  3.11  Workers also seem to be very vulnerable to instant dismissal and do not expect to have any rights of redress. For example:

    —  A CAB in Hampshire reported the case of a young portuguese man who had been brought to the UK for a job with accommodation. The agency provided transport to and from the UK and from the accommodation to the workplace in the UK. The driver of the transport to his place of work complained about him and he was told to go back to Portugal. He approached the CAB for advice on his rights, whether he could retrieve his deposit paid to the agency for his accommodation and whether he could stay and work in the UK.

    —  A CAB in Northern Ireland reported a case involving a young Portuguese man who was fearful that if he asked for paid holidays he would be sacked—he could not risk being sacked because he would lose his accommodation which was part of his employment contract.


  4.1  The nationalities of clients seeking advice from the bureau in the Citizes Advice East region are mainly Portuguese with some Spanish workers. In addition there is evidence of problems for workers from China, Brazil, Poland and Russia.

  4.2  For those employees from the EU, although under the Treaty of Rome they have the right of free movement throughout the EU, they are often told by the agencies that they are illegal immigrants within the UK thus creating a culture of fear and reluctance to seek advice.

  4.3  Evidence from an interpreter who helps bureau in Norfolk describes:

    "Different nationalities share accommodation which leads to language problems, without any notice other people are moved in. Some legal workers must have been told they are illegal, so keep their heads down and put up with appalling conditions both at work and in their accommodation"

  4.4  Bureau staff also report concerns about the impact in the local community due to EU workers living there. The Social Policy coordinator for one bureau describes the following:

    "The social effects are of concern. The press (+ `populist' politicians) have whipped up antagonism towards all non-UK nationals (whether they originate from mid Asia or Eastern Europe) who have come to settle in the UK. Tensions have built up in the local community because of the economic situation these Portuguese workers are experiencing. Many are young, on low wages/unemployed and in poor, overcrowded accommodation causing tension with neighbours already fuelled with the prejudices of the media and the populist politicians"

  4.5  Agencies in the UK appear to be connected with branches within the EU. Potential employees often pay a fee to the agency to cover for paperwork. Agencies promise employees can "make new fortune" in the UK.

  4.6  Citizens Advice sees a need for it to respond to this evidence by developing links with advice and community organisations in other EU Member States that could disseminate information and warnings about the activities of these agencies


  5.1  EU nationals seeking advice often state they are in fear of their employers.

    —  A CAB in Norfolk reports a Portuguese worker who describes the agency as the "Kings Lynn Mafia".

    —  A CAB in Norfolk when trying to resolve the employment issues of a group of Portuguese workers had to seek police help in trying to resolve the problem as the agency had brought along their own security people.

  5.2  Interviews with bureau managers show that bureau are receiving significant numbers of enquiries from EU nationals in some areas such as Thetford, Kings Lynn, and Felixstowe—this unexpected change in demand for CAB advice services has a significant impact on an already stretched service. In particular it is quite difficult in these areas to be able to find translators who are able to offer their services free of charge or at limited cost. CABx who have reported cases from the South East and Northern Ireland have made similar observations, and on the lack of advice and support available for workers who do not speak English.

  5.3  A bureau in Suffolk tried to liaise with the Portuguese Embassy on the issue, but the Embassy explained that there was no support available from them outside of London leading the bureau to wonder if they were fully informed of the situation.

  5.4  Experience of statutory agencies is on the whole disappointing. Most Job Centre offices simply refer EU nationals to bureaux for help without providing any translation services themselves. This also appears to be true of Local Authorities who seem to provide little support to EU nationals.

  5.5  The Citizens Advice service recommends that in the areas where there is significant employment of non-English speaking workers, for example in the agricultural industry, access to interpreters should be easily available in Job Centres and DWP offices along with information leaflets in Portuguese and Spanish advising claimants of their rights. These recommendations also apply to Local Authorities.


  6.1  In response to some of the problems CABx have helped people with there have been some good practice initiatives, including the following:

    —  A CAB in Suffolk reports a joint additional advice session arranged by the bureau and the local ONE office to provide a service to a group of Portuguese nationals.

    —  Kings Lynn LA supported a project providing an ethical agency offering a service whereby any profit was used to provide good employment conditions for the staff. However this venture failed due to a number of reasons including the low wages paid by growers and nurseries, the sheer scale of labour needed (at a time when employment was high) by some customers and the difficulty in influencing change in a global marketplace.


  7.1  The practices of gangmasters are presenting very real problems for the workers they engage. Evidence on this is reported by bureau around the country, and particularly in the East Region.

  7.2  Most workers who have sought advice from CABx are experiencing exploitative employment contracts, which commonly have closely interlinked employment and housing issues, with one being reliant on the other. Long hours and poor working and accommodation conditions seem to be common. Poor employment practices include infringements of the National Minimum Wage, rights to paid holidays and statutory sick pay, notice rights and protections from illegal deductions from wages.

  7.3  Fear of retribution, combined with an assumption that they may be working illegally, and fear of loss of job and home means not only that such workers fear to seek advice but they are also highly unlikely to complain or use the Employment Tribunal System. Employers and agencies are able to take advantage of this.

  7.4  There is a need for more support for advice services in the areas in which gangmaster employment is found to enable agencies such as CABx to offer more help and advice. In addition statutory agencies are not providing information or services in languages other than English, putting a strain on voluntary advice services.

  7.5  More widely there is a need for preventative advice, particularly in other EU Member states to help intending workers avoid being taken advantage of.


  8.1  The inquiry should take account of evidence on problems in the food processing industry.

  8.2  In looking for a strategic response to evidence of problems caused by gangmasters the Committee might wish to consider:

    —  Whether and how better information and advice could be given to potential workers before they agree to come to work in the UK;

    —  Whether the UK Government could work with other EU Member States to tackle employment agencies recruiting in certain other States, particularly Portugal;

    —  How local Job Centre offices and DWP offices could improve the service they provide in key areas, for example by having information available in other languages; and

    —  What role local authorities could play in preventing and resolving problems caused by the practices of gangmasters. This might include, for example, providing advice and information in other languages, monitoring housing conditions of such workers and assisting dismissed workers to find emergency accommodation.

  8.3  There also appears to be a need to raise awareness of Embassies to the problems and to look at ways they could improve their support advice and help to citizens of their countries that are working in rural areas.

25 April 2003

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