'Gangmasters' accused of farm rule by fear: John McGhie reports on allegations of underpayment and intimidation among the army of casual labourers, recruited each year by rural middlemen, who work long hours to harvest Britain's crops

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The Independent Online
IT WAS to be the perfect summer job. Ever since he could remember, Dimitri Sudjin had wanted to visit England. Schooldays in Latvia, were spent saving precious hard currency, planning the day he might travel to the land of his literary heroes, Keats and Byron.

Two months ago, the 18-year-old from Riga took the first step. Along with hundreds of other eastern Europeans, Dimitri handed over dollars 800 ( pounds 530), the equivalent of a year's salary, to his local branch of the International Exchange Centre.

The money was for a return bus ticket to England plus registration fees and three weeks' advance rent at Fridaybridge International Farm Camp, buried away in the drab flatlands of Cambridgeshire's Fens.

His visa was one of 550 obtained by the camp through the Home Office's Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme. He was to spend August and September brushing up on his English while picking fruit and vegetables on local farms.

His home for the next three months was a former prisoner-of- war camp and his host was a gangmaster, one of the 2,200 British rural labour bosses whose control over casual workers has gone unchecked for decades.

In common with other students, after the third week, Dimitri had to pay a further pounds 55 a week for board and lodgings. The food he received was grim fare. Lunch consisted of a couple of white bread sandwiches, one with no filling.

Lodgings consisted of a dozen students sharing a hut with no heating, torn sheets and filthy mattresses. The state of the latrines appears to have changed little since the last war and hot water for showers was sporadic. The camp has been served with 20 Environmental Health improvement notices this year.

All this in return for back-breaking work in the field. Dimitri was lucky to get a reasonably well paid job cutting flowers, but others were less fortunate. Sometimes the money they earn on a piece-rate basis is derisory. One Spanish student said he had earned only pounds 8 for an eight-hour day picking vegetables.

Norman MacDonald, the camp's owner, admitted conditions were 'basic', but said students were warned in advance. He blames overseas agencies for raising students' hopes, adding that many earn good money. 'More than 120 students have been here since June. If they didn't like it, I'm sure they would have left by now.'

But foreign students are part of a much wider problem that affects up to 100,000 British land-workers employed by gangmasters to pick the vegetables that end up on supermarket shelves.

In a three-month investigation, BBC's Public Eye uncovered widespread exploitation of agricultural labourers. Working for gangmasters in conditions that have scarcely changed in centuries, thousands of men and women are often paid less than the legal minimum wage of pounds 3.65 an hour laid down by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). In the large farming belt of Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, where rural unemployment is high, gangmasters provide the only real chance of a job. Gangmasters are the middle men between the farmer, or vegetable pack house, and the worker. At dawn on most days, vans trawl the villages and country lanes picking up 'gangers', ferrying them to the fields. With greater mechanisation, farmers increasingly need them to provide instant labour without the costly need to employ full-time farm hands. The farmer pays a rate for harvesting a crop to the gangmaster who then pays the worker. It is here that the problem lies. With most of the work being done on piece rate, the gangmaster has virtual carte blanche to pass on as much, or as little, of the money he gets from the farmer to the worker.

Tommy, not his real name, is a 56-year-old labourer who has now escaped the gangmaster system by getting a staff job with a large packing house. About 18 months ago, he finished working for a gangmaster in the Wisbech area.

'You've got your back bent double from morning 'till night. You might go down on your knees when your back aches but every time you are not doing something, you are not getting paid. And even if you struggle at it for seven or eight hours a day, you still only get a half decent wage,' he said.

Tommy's entire wage for a year's work came to pounds 4,000. But, like many others, he insists on remaining anonymous in the knowledge that if he is ever identified he will never work in the area again. With no other work available, gangmasters do not need to take on people who complain. Many are also worried about the threat of physical retribution. Tommy is an old hand and he claims to know people who have been savagely beaten for speaking out. 'I don't want to be walking about looking over my shoulder for a long time,' he said. Another man, who also refused to be named, said: 'You can end up with a brick through your window, or worse, you end up in intensive care.' Wisbech's Conservative MP, Malcolm Moss, went to work picking spring onions for a day following a complaint from a gangmaster that local labour wouldn't leave the dole to work for him. Mr Moss said he earned pounds 33.60 for a six-and-a-half hour day working for gangmaster Danny White. Following the resultant publicity, 18 people have had their benefit cut for refusing to work for Mr White.

But more are likely to follow them as the perception locally is still that it would be impossible to earn that much. Public Eye tried to test the truth of it all by sending in under cover a local man, John Hooks, aged 26, to do exactly the same job as Mr Moss. He worked for a day and a half but emerged with only pounds 12. Mr White described John Hooks as idle. 'He's not worth a kick in the guts,' he said.

Although people are often worried about complaining openly about their wages and conditions, there has never been any suggestion that they would encounter physical retribution from Danny White who is generally considered, in a hard world, to be one of the better gangmasters.

Mr White is adamant that good wages can be earned from picking spring onions and when confronted with John Hooks's wages of pounds 12 he was forthright. 'If he didn't earn at least pounds 30 that day, he's lazy . . . I've got women out there, I've got old age pensioners earning pounds 50 a day and you send a bloke out there who can't earn 30 quid . . . they're idle, useless and lazy.'

Sir Richard Body, Conservative MP for the neighbouring constituency of Boston and Holland, said that gangmasters must be regulated.

A former chairman of the Commons select committee on agriculture, he wants regulation to force gangmasters to become licensed employment agencies. 'It's clear that, although there are good gangmasters, there are too many cowboys who pay appallingly low wages and treat their workers very badly,' he said.

Six government departments now independently monitor various aspects of gangmaster activities. The Inland Revenue has retrieved pounds 1.75m in avoided taxes in the past four years.

But MAFF's Wages Inspectorate, which is meant to enforce the minimum wage, has only prosecuted one gangmaster in the past year. There is widespread ignorance among farmers and gangmasters about the minimum wage and there is confusion over who is responsible for paying it. Privately, the inspectorate admits there is a serious problem over non-payment of the minimum wage, but says that it needs more resources to tackle it.

The Home Office has said that any complaints from students would be considered while they were determining the future of their agricultural workers scheme.

Public Eye: 'The Gangmasters'; BBC2, 8pm tonight.

(Photograph omitted)