Page last updated at 01:20 GMT, Friday, 31 July 2009 02:20 UK

Gangmasters 'continue to exploit'

Cockler at Morecambe Bay
At least 21 Chinese cockle pickers died in Morecambe in 2004

Gangmasters are still putting workers' lives at risk and paying them well below the minimum wage, a report from the charity Oxfam claims.

It comes five years after 21 Chinese cockle pickers died in Morecambe Bay.

Oxfam says government regulation is helping but there are still people working in dangerous environments for as little as £50 for seven days' work.

It said gangmasters were now moving into poorly controlled sectors such as construction, hospitality and care.

After the Morecambe Bay tragedy in 2004, the Gangmasters Licensing Act was created to regulate labour in agriculture, forestry, horticulture, shellfish gathering, and the food processing and packaging industries.

Kate Wareing, Oxfam's director of UK poverty, said abuse was rife on building sites, in hotels and care homes, with staff working long hours for not very much money.

"The government urgently needs to extend rules to curb gangmasters' abuse where workers have little or no protection," she said.

Some of the main points from the report included:

  • In construction, severe and systematic violations of health and safety procedures are common, with repeated instances of threats to sack workers if they raise concerns
  • In hospitality, workers are paid by the room, rather than the hour and are expected to clean more rooms than is feasible
  • In care, excessive hours of work are particularly prevalent; some are working nearly 100 hours per week.

The report, Turning the Tide: How to best protect workers employed by gangmasters, five years after Morecambe Bay, found evidence of workers being grossly underpaid.

It also discovered gangmasters were falsifying wage slips and deducting excessive amounts for payment of vital safety equipment and transport to work.

Oxfam said workers also face bullying, harassment and even physical violence.


The charity points out that many workers are recruited from overseas with the promise of jobs and accommodation.

It says debt-bondage is commonplace with workers made to pay back so-called agency fees.

The report highlights one case where gangmasters enticed a family to come to Britain from Poland, lending them money for airfares and accommodation.

After the gangmasters had deducted "debts" from their pay packets they were left with only £1 to live on per week.

Workers are too scared to report employers for fear of losing their jobs and accommodation, and they can be living under the threat of violence and deportation.

A total of 23 cockle pickers are believed to have died at Morecambe but only 21 bodies were recovered.

A gangmaster was jailed over the deaths and deported to China.

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