Memorandum submitted by Citizens Advice
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 Norfolkthe
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. SCOPE OF
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
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
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. RANGE OF
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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 sackedhe could not
risk being sacked because he would lose his accommodation which
was part of his employment contract.
4. THE RECRUITMENT
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. SOURCES OF
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 Felixstowethis
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
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. EXAMPLES OF
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;
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
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