In agriculture, as in other low paid sectors, many workers are supplied by gangmasters or “mediators”. They sometimes flout minimum wage legislation by deducting inflated sums for housing and transport directly from workers’ pay.
It is a modern day version of bonded labour – charging vulnerable people large sums in for the “privilege” of coming to be exploited in the farms and factories of Britain, deductions for accommodation, and no payslips.
But it’s important to note that hiding behind the gangmasters are the big corporations who rely on this system of cheap labour to produce their profits.
The Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) is the body that oversees the legitimate end of the trade in labour. The licensing authority was set up in 2005 after the death of 23 Chinese cockle pickers working for a gangmaster in Morecambe Bay.
It has since removed licences from 57 gangmasters. But there are loopholes in the licensing process – and many gangmasters and agencies are still violating licensing standards and breaking the law. The GLA only enforces licences and it has no power to halt exploitation. It employs just 20 inspectors.
Union leaders left the Labour Party’s national policy forum in Warwick believing that the GLA’s remit would be extended to cover the construction industry. As with so many promises from the government, this one proved false. Pat McFadden, New Labour’s employment relations minister, quickly announced there had been no such deal.
Instead, the government is setting up a Fair Employment Enforcement Board to oversee the work of agencies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Employment Agencies Standards Inspectorate (EASI). The board is to be chaired by Pat McFadden. The government have also launched a helpline and increased spending on advertising, he added.
New Labour is fond of advertising campaigns, but not in equal measure. The £6.5 million devoted to advertising against benefit fraud is 57 times greater a sum than the £118,000 allocated to tell people about the minimum wage.
More importantly, the government is less than keen on enforcing its own laws when it comes to workers’ rights. Statistically the average employer will be inspected over the minimum wage once every 330 years.
Even controls that allegedly clamp down on the abuse and exploitation of migrant labour can encourage workers who were already exploited to collude with their employers, since both have an interest in evading the authorities.
People avoid reporting that their employer is beating them, or not giving them any money – because doing so increases the risk of being deported.
Even if the GLA was expanded to include construction it would make little difference, since even when cases of exploitation come to light there is little prospect of prosecution.
The Ucatt union presented EASI with a list to of 16 major construction contractors that were unwittingly using rogue labour agencies last September. This included Skanska, which unknowingly employed an agency paying its workers on its Kingsmill Hospital PFI Hospital site in Mansfield less than £10 a week.
In July it came to light that some workers on the site took home just £8.80, after working a 40 hour week. Other workers worked in excess of 70 hours and took home less than £100. The workers were charged deductions for rent, tools and utility bills.
The abuse only came to light when some of the workers stopped being paid altogether, with the company owing some workers five week’s pay. The workers were initially scared of approaching the union because the company also provided their accommodation.
Ucatt reported the company directly to EASI but did not receive an acknowledgement. According to union estimates, there are rogue agencies on about a third of British construction sites – a figure that rises to 70 percent in London and the South East.
“To imply that EASI are capable of policing this sector is not a real life proposal and quite frankly lacks credibility,” says Jim Kennedy, Ucatt’s national political officer. “It is only a matter of time before we encounter a Morecambe Bay type incident in the construction industry.”