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It pays to use slave labour, says watchdog

Gangmasters Licensing Authority is dismayed at tiny fines levied on unscrupulous employers

Sentences for criminal bosses who use forced labour are "unduly lenient" and do not deter modern slavery, the head of Britain's worker exploitation watchdog believes.

Sentences for criminal bosses who use forced labour are “unduly lenient” and do not deter modern slavery, the head of Britain’s worker exploitation watchdog has told The Independent on Sunday.

The fines for agencies and farmers exploiting staff are so small that they are seen as a “hazard of the job” and not a deterrent, Paul Broadbent, chief executive of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority said in an interview.

“Often the punishment doesn't fit the crime”, he said. “I'm as yet to fully understand why, with the Gangmasters Licensing Act, generally the punishments as far as I've seen have been unduly lenient.”

He cited two recent cases in Northern Ireland, where unlicensed gangmasters were fined £500, despite making more than £60,000 and £10,000 respectively from unscrupulous labour practices, including charging extortionate ‘finding fees’ to workers brought over from Eastern Europe.

“We'd worked out the amount of money they'd made out of exploiting those people was way in excess of that fine”, Broadbent said, “so it's actually worthwhile doing it on the off chance you'll get caught, because when you do get caught and fined it's absolutely a drop in the ocean compared with the money you've made.”

He added: “The gangmaster was making thousands of pounds. To make thousands of pounds and be fined 500 is almost seen as a hazard of the job and no deterrent, which can't be right.”

The GLA has been lobbying the Crown Prosecution Service to make sure that bosses who pay workers poverty wages and force them to work long hours in appalling conditions get more stringent sentences. Broadbent said: “I'd like to see more of our prosecutions come to court and I would like... the bench to consider the full range of sanctions its got available to it and I don't think it does at the moment.”

Broadbent was brought into the job in January following Government attempts to do away with the watchdog altogether as part of their red tape challenge. The agency is constantly battling to claw back enough funds to operate and has already had a massive cut in budget.

The GLA's funding will have reduced by 17 per cent between 2011 and 2014, with next year’s annual budget set at £3.9m. They have already cut back staff and worse is on the way. In its latest strategic plan the GLA admits that there is still a £100,000 shortfall for 2014 and that more job cuts expected. It now has just 31 staff at its headquarters in Nottingham and 37 investigating officers to monitor the whole country.

Formed in 2006 in the wake of the Morecambe Bay cockle picking disaster, when 23 Chinese workers drowned on the sands, it predominantly investigates labour exploitation in agriculture. The Labour party and others have lobbied for its remit to be expanded so it can protect workers in other high-risk industries, but Broadbent thinks that is impractical, given its current resources.

“Some people do argue that we should extend the remit because the GLA regulated sector doesn't cover construction, it doesn't cover hospitality, it doesn't cover care homes. But I would argue at this moment in time the GLA has got quite enough on its plate managing the sector that it's currently in. In fact it's got more than enough to do.”

Rather than expand, this month he actually cut down the number of sectors the authority regulates. It currently monitors 400,000 to 700,000 workers employed nationally on farms, in food packing and processing and in the shellfish industry, but will no longer regulate 'marginal' industries, such as forestry and apprenticeships.

The TUC said the change “defied logic” and put thousands of vulnerable workers at risk, but Broadbent believes it is necessary. “From the work we've done, there doesn't seem to be the same level of exploitation, if at all, in those areas [forestry, apprentices, cleaners in food processing], as there is in mainstream agriculture, shellfish and processing and packing,” he said.

Despite having reduced the industries the GLA scrutinises, Broadbent admits that gangmasters operating in workplaces not covered by the watchdog use lower standards because they know they will not be policed. “We're aware of recruitment agencies and labour providers who operate employment models which are compliant in our sector, but operate employment models in other sectors that wouldn't be compliant with our standards”, he said.

“It is worrying that people seem to think it's ok to operate different types of employment and tax models in different sectors and don't operate those in our particular sector because they know they'd fail our standards. Those standards were created for a reason, which is to protect vulnerable workers, so it'd be naive to think there wasn't any vulnerability in the sectors that aren't currently regulated.”

Previously Assistant Chief Constable at Nottinghamshire police, Broadbent says he was brought in to work more closely with the police. Broadbent admits his job is “very political” and he is constantly holding the line against a government and an industry that appear more interested in being rid of the organisation altogether.

He came under fire from the National Farmers Union in February for bringing prosecutions against dairy farmers who employed labour from an unlicensed gangmaster. But far from being remorseful, he says he is “disappointed” that the farmers, who pleaded guilty to using the labour, were let off without fines.

“The farmers have said we're the innocent party, but they got offered labour at a price that was too good to be true – and it was”, Broadbent said. “There had to be exploitation involved... There were Filipino workers sleeping in leaky cow sheds. It wasn't difficult to identify these people.”

He added: “Farmers should have a lot of responsibility to make sure that the people that are being hired on their behalf aren't exploited.

Commenting on the scrapping of the Agricultural Wages Board, which used to set farmers’ pay and will be closed at the end of this month, he said: “We've got concerns that some people will seek to exploit workers more and more. I totally understand the overarching push to support economic growth, but I think there is a place for necessary regulation in certain areas to protect workers.”