Clampdown on farm worker exploitation

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The Independent Online
A CLAMPDOWN on the illegal exploitation of farm workers by unscrupulous "gangmasters" was announced by the Government yesterday.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food unveiled measures which could save taxpayers millions of pounds by curbing the unlawful employment of immigrants and benefit claimants.

"Operation Gangmaster" is designed to stop agricultural foremen or "gangmasters" paying immigrants low wages to work on farms under appalling conditions.

Lord Donoughue, the farming industry minister, said yesterday: "There is a significant minority of gangmasters in this country whose activities are simply unacceptable. I am very concerned about the intimidation and abuse of workers' rights which some of these people are involved in."

Although the majority of gangmasters provide a legitimate service, meeting farmers' demands for manpower during the busiest times of year, about 20 per cent of the 2,000 gangmasters in this country operate illegally, he said.

He added: "Operation Gangmaster will involve joint enforcement visits to farms where illegal activities are suspected. These will be followed by in-depth investigations into the gangmasters involved."

The Government believes that new guidelines for gangmasters, farmers and workers, produced by the National Farmers' Union and the Fresh Produce Consortium, will reduce the scale of the problem by informing them of their rights and obligations.

Illegal immigrants, many of whom are smuggled into Britain from eastern Europe, have been found to have worked for as little as pounds 1 an hour at harvest time. Gangmasters are able to exploit their workers' poor grasp of English and their illegal status.

Leaflets explaining workers' rights - including 10,000 in Polish and Russian - will be distributed among workers who are often intimidated into not complaining about long working hours and deductions from their pay for transport or accommodation.

The Transport and General Workers' Union, which believes that 10 to 15 per cent of an estimated 40,000 gang workers in this country are illegal workers from abroad, welcomed the Government's initiative.

Don Pollard, the national chair of the union's agricultural section, said: "They have co-ordinated the enforcement of existing law and we support this as a useful first step."

But he said that the TGWU would also like to see registration of gangmasters.

Lord Donoughue said: "For the longer term we are continuing to examine the scope for registration of agricultural gangmasters and ways to assist the unemployed to take up seasonal agricultural employment more easily, reducing the temptation to work while on benefit and laying individuals open to exploitation by gangmasters."

The first raid in the Government's operation last April led to 180 workers being interviewed on spring onion farms in Lincolnshire.

Fifty of the workers were found to be benefit claimants and 37 were arrested for possible immigration offences.