Page last updated at 05:14 GMT, Wednesday, 27 August 2008 06:14 UK

Cracking down on the gangmasters

By Jane Deith
BBC News

The body which regulates gangmasters says it has uncovered record numbers of workers being abused. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has taken away more than 20 licences already this year - nearly as many as in the whole of 2007.

So what happens when a farm discovers its seasonal work force is being mistreated by a labour provider? And can you farm without them?

Migrant workers Alex Perun and Anita Osipova
Workers Alex Perun and Anita Osipova were exploited by a gangmaster

Allpress Farms near Peterborough grows leeks for Produce World, which supplies Sainsbury's.

In their busiest season, the winter, they used a gangmaster who supplied the extra workers they needed to strip and pack the vegetables.

But they had no idea that European Labour Services (ELS) was abusing its workers.

They were deducted pay without warning, and charged for transport they did not use. Sick pay was non-existent and anyone who complained was sacked.

The workers included Alex Perun from Poland and Anita Osipova from Latvia.

Mr Perun said: "I didn't like ELS. I was working one or two days a week, the rest I'm sitting home with no money. I got maybe 180 a week - that's no money.

"And the problem was, I would get up at 5am and go to work, but after one hour I had to go back home because nobody told me I had the day off. Then the next day I would have no work. This happened many times."

Appalled

Mr Perun came to Peterborough from Poland because his brother moved here with his family and told him he would earn more money and have a better life in England.

But Mr Perun was not prepared for the treatment he got from ELS. It often did not pay him for the work he had done, but he was not allowed to complain.

Every week there was a problem. Sometimes they didn't pay any money. And they didn't pay sick money
Anita Osipova
Migrant worker

One of his colleagues was Anita Osipova, who came over from Latvia because there were no jobs available there.

Again, she came here for a better life but was treated unfairly by ELS.

"Every week there was a problem. Sometimes they didn't pay any money. And they didn't pay sick money. I was sick for six weeks and I didn't get any money," she said.

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How the farm helped its workers

In April, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority heard claims a worker had been assaulted, and began an undercover investigation. Eventually it had enough evidence to strip ELS of its licence.

Allpress Farms and Produce World were appalled. Between them they gave the 50 workers jobs, and found them decent accommodation.

But how could they not have noticed what was happening?

'Smaller pool'

"We were shocked by the allegations that were made," said Andrew Burgess, a director at Produce World.

"The workers in the factory seemed to be happy. The information that was received by the GLA was received through their intelligence network we don't have access to. And that unearthed the wrongdoings.

"We came up with a plan together with Sainsbury's to directly employ the workers to make sure they had proper housing and were paid a fair wage."

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority says the rise in gangmasters losing their licences is proof that it is getting better at catching those who mistreat their workers.

But it points out it was not designed to prevent exploitation.

Andrew Burgess of food supplier Produce World
Andrew Burgess says it makes good sense for employers to look after staff

Mr Burgess admits he does not have much faith in a licensing system which ELS cheated with such ease, but says he will still have to use gangmasters in the future.

"They are a necessary part of farming in Britain," he said.

This particular business has seasonal peaks. There is work all year round, but not enough in the summer to keep all the workers busy.

"Hence we can employ a number of workers directly, but we still have to top up with agency labour at times. The pool that we're fishing in for workers is getting smaller and smaller.

"There's less immigration from eastern Europe, there's more people going home again because the economies there are better and the devaluation of the euro has affected the value of their wages.

"So it makes good sense for us to look after our staff because we need to get enough workers to do our crops."

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Half of the migrants from Eastern Europe who came to Britain after the European Union expanded in 2004 have gone home, recent research suggests.

Both Mr Perun and Ms Osipova are employed directly by the farm and have permanent contracts.

I'm a lucky man because when ELS left the factory, the farm gave me a contract so now here I have a good life
Alex Perun
They are both living comfortably in Peterborough and are grateful for the employment they receive at the farm where conditions are much fairer. They even receive English lessons.

Ms Osipova is glad that in her new job her concerns are listened to, but she is not sure yet whether she will be staying in the UK or going back to Latvia.

But Alex is glad he came to England and has ambitions too.

"I'm a lucky man because when ELS left the factory, the farm gave me a contract so now here I have a good life," he said.

"Now after one or two months I can buy things that I only dream about in Poland. For example, I have a plasma TV and a car.

"And it's not only money, here I have prospects. Here I can go to school for example so, maybe not in the winter because it's busy in the winter, but next summer I'll go to school. I like history.

"I want to stay here. I don't think I'll go back to Poland, maybe to another country, but I think I'll stay here."

Moving on up

ELS appealed against the decision to revoke its licence, but lost.

The BBC tried to contact the firm, but it did not respond. It is rumoured the director has changed career - he was apparently last seen driving an ice cream van in Peterborough.

The workers he exploited are happy now they are getting a fair wage.

But the farmers in the Fens know they will have to work hard to hold on to them.

Because as migrant workers gain skills and experience, they might not want to trim leeks or weed carrots any more.

When this farm advertised for managers recently, the best applicants were Eastern Europeans.

And as farmers watch their migrant labour force move on, or move home, they are starting to seriously worry about who is going to work in their fields and factories in the future.



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SEE ALSO
Gangmaster defends worker claims
09 May 08 |  England
Migrants exploited by gangmasters
12 Feb 08 |  Cornwall

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