We will end this exploitation by gangmasters

By Paul Whitehouse, chairman of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. Response to ‘Another Morecambe Bay is waiting to happen’ (THE GUARDIAN, 06/04/06):

it was disappointing to read Hsiao-Hung Pai’s view that the Gangmasters Licensing Act offers “only the most limited protection” against worker exploitation (Another Morecambe Bay is waiting to happen, March 28). The Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) was set up to curb exploitation of workers in the agricultural, horticultural and shellfish industries; it will have the powers to stop this exploitation later this year and is determined to use them.Gangmasters (the old word for labour providers) make just-in-time ordering for the food chain work. Licensing for providers in all but shellfish gathering starts today. It would have been better if we could have started simultaneously with shellfish-gathering, but in this area we did not have the benefit of the excellent work already done by the agriculture and food-processing industry, from growers to retailers.

Some firms working in the food-processing sector have been audited voluntarily by the industry’s working group and have shown that they are likely to meet GLA licensing standards. Others have been discovered not to have been complying with employment-practice requirements, or have shown a clean sheet to the auditors and then reverted to their bad old ways. As no one has powers to do anything about this, and the GLA will not have the powers until later in 2006, this is not surprising.

Hsiao-Hung Pai states: “Polish workers are working under similar conditions to the Chinese. Led by Polish gangmasters, the workers, with no experience at sea, confide that the worst thing about the work is the lack of safety. Nothing has changed.” One thing has changed – the Polish workers are here legally, and are not frightened of being deported if they complain to the authorities; but she’s right that there is not yet any control over gangmasters on the sands. That’s because none of the laws has yet come into force. This has led to the misconception that the GLA has no teeth.

We shall start consulting on regulations covering shellfish-gathering this month and invite applications for licences from October 1 this year, and it will be an offence not to have a licence from April 2007. The scope of these regulations is likely to be wider than in agriculture – so that we can deal with those who organise gangs to gather shellfish, whether or not they employ the people involved. This means the “local middlemen [who] supervise the work daily but claim no responsibility for conditions” will need a licence within a year.

If they don’t have a licence once the offences come into force, both police officers and the GLA’s staff will be able to arrest them. We shall merely need to prove they were engaged in providing labour, which for shellfish-gathering may mean merely facilitating or organising rather than employing. If they have no licence then they have no defence. Those found guilty under the act will face a fine of up to £5,000 and/or possible imprisonment of up to 10 years.

Exploitation of workers is wrong, as is exploitation of the public by not paying HM Revenue & Customs money deducted from employees’ wages or VAT collected from customers. The GLA is determined to end this exploitation.