A recent announcement by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) suggests that the number of foreign workers being exploited is higher than previously thought, particularly in the food processing industry. To tackle the problem of rogue employers, the GLA launched Operation Ajax, an initiative that will see the authority carry out up to 30 raids during the next 18 months.

The types of worker abuse uncovered by the GLA since it was set up in 2006 include forced labour; threats and verbal abuse; pay below the minimum wage; illegal wage deductions for unsuitable or overcrowded accommodation; and workers forced to travel to work in ’death trap’ vans and other health and safety risks.

The GLA’s new high-profile approach is probably the only realistic way of enforcing the law. The people working for gangmasters - mainly foreign workers - are unlikely to complain and rarely have the support of established UK residents or access to union representation.

More and more jobs in food processing and manufacturing are being filled by workers from overseas. Many depend on gangmasters to find them work. Most businesses in the baking industry, as well as the law-abiding majority of gangmasters, will welcome the announcement of Operation Ajax. Nevertheless, if unscrupulous practices are uncovered, this may be very damaging to businesses. For example, if it transpires that the gangmaster was unlicensed, the businesses it was supplying could themselves face criminal charges.

Even if a gangmaster targeted by the GLA has a licence, if it has been operating outside the rules, the GLA can effectively shut down its business. For brand names, there is the additional conside-ration that scandals about worker exploitation can be very damaging.

To safeguard against the risks, companies should check out their own suppliers via the GLA public register, which lists all the labour providers who hold a licence, and before agreeing to take on labour from a gangmaster. Better still, businesses can sign up for the GLA’s Active Check service - on website [http://www.gla.gov.uk] - which will alert users if a particular gangmaster loses its licence.

Labour users also need to be sensitive to signs of worker exploitation. The GLA publishes the minimum rate that a labour provider is likely to have to charge. A gangmaster charging less than those rates should set the alarm bells ringing at once. Similarly, labour users could be storing up trouble for themselves if they turn a blind eye to complaints by workers about issues such as not being paid, dodgy accommodation, threats and abuse. While the end-user may not be in the wrong, its reputation could be severely dented if the supplying gangmaster is, and the GLA catches up with them.


=== What is a gangmaster? ===

A gangmaster supplies labour to agriculture, horticulture, shellfish gathering or food processing or packaging; or uses labour to provide a service in any of those sectors. For example, someone who supplies labour to a bakery food manufacturer will be a gangmaster, unless the labour use falls into an exempt category. These include wholesale establishments and retail outlets, as well as work in distribution warehouses.

It is a criminal offence for a gangmaster to operate without a licence from the GLA or for a business in a relevant sector to use labour supplied by an unlicensed gangmaster. The maximum penalty for using an unlicensed gangmaster is six months in prison and a fine.


=== Is there exploitation in the baking industry? ===

In March 2008, British Bakeries was raided by the GLA. In this case, the gangmaster, who also supplied workers to Thorntons and Florette, forced migrant workers to live in cramped, run-down accommodation, and overcharged them for the privilege.

"It’s not unusual to find employers, having turned to agencies for short-term solutions, ending up with agency workers from 12 months to three years in the same jobs," says Joe Marino, general secretary, Bakers, Food & Allied Workers Union. This can build resentment for a company’s employees, who fear for their future and existing terms and conditions of employment. "Union policy on the use of agency labour seeks to address both the fear of permanent workers and the occasional need for casual/agency work."