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Last Updated: Monday, 19 March 2007, 06:17 GMT
Migrant workers face new slavery
by Nic Rigby
BBC News, Norwich

Packing houses
Thousands of migrants seek work in food production in the East
The modern day incarnation of slavery - which sees unscrupulous gangmasters exploiting migrant workers with threats of violence - is alive and well in 21st Century Britain.

Despite the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), set up after 21 Chinese cockle pickers died at Morecambe Bay in Lancashire in 2005, some gangmasters continue to make money from the misery of migrant workers, BBC News has found.

Petr Torak knows only too well the difficulties faced by migrants coming to a new country.

Mr Torak, who became a police community support officer with Cambridgeshire Police in December last year, came from the Czech Republic to the UK as a migrant worker in 1999.

As the UK marks the 200th anniversary of the Parliamentary Act to abolish the slave trade, Mr Toarak said that every day he comes across cases of the exploitation of migrant workers in the Peterborough and Wisbech areas.

'Took passports away'

"The gangmasters from Eastern Europe go to the cities in the Czech Republic and get homeless people from the streets and offer them a roof over their heads and a decent job if they come to the UK," he said.

"They take their passports away. They work them six or seven days a week in the food processing industry. They get a room in a house and there's normally four to a room.

"They get a few cans of beans to eat and some cheap bread and are paid 5 a week. Of the 250 the gangmasters get per person, the most they spend on them is 50.

"People are definitely scared of talking. Sometimes they just run away.

"If people say they want more money [from the gangmaster] they are kicked out of their accommodation.

"They are obligated to work. This is slavery."

Parts of Peterborough have seen a growth in private rented accommodation to migrant workers
Migrant communities have grown up in parts of Peterborough

Oonagh Tucker, who investigates cases for the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, said she has come across cases where gangmasters had threatened workers with violence if they did not continue to work for them.

"Other workers have been told they have to pay them [the gangmasters] to leave their employment," she said.

She said the behaviour of some gangmasters continued to intimidate workers even after they had registered with GLA.

"It is registered slavery," added Mrs Tucker.

Linda Hutchinson, bureau manager of the Fenland CAB in Cambridgeshire, said many Latvians and Lithuanians were brought over to the East of England by gangmasters.

She said that while some gangmasters in the region treat workers well and responsibly, others "are just breaching all sorts of agreements and legislation. They dismiss people without notice".

She has concerns about the GLA which she believed was "more concerned about getting them licensed than worrying about what they do once they are licensed".

A CAB report for the Fenland area, which has been submitted to the East of England Development Agency (EEDA), says: "Certain gangmasters receive several complaints each week, often where violence has been threatened against workers.

'Violence threatened'

"Some gangmasters insist on all employees renting accommodation through them, evicting them without notice if sick or pregnant."

The report says violence is threatened if the workers resist or complain.

It says that while most gangmasters have registered with the GLA, the unscrupulous gangsters "continue to breach license conditions and flout employment laws on a regular basis".

"Complaints against gangmasters are increasing, not decreasing as we hoped they would with licence enforcement."

Film producer Jez Lewis, who co-wrote the new Nick Broomfield film Ghosts about the deaths at Morecambe Bay, said his research for the movie suggests unscrupulous gangmasters are still operating despite the GLA.

"The problem with it is that it is pretty toothless," said Mr Lewis, who lives near Diss, which is on the Norfolk/Suffolk border.

Pc Ashley Grant, minorities and ethnic liaison officer with Norfolk Police, said it was vital to "highlight the plight of people entering this country who are taken advantage of from unscrupulous companies".

He has dealt with a whole host of cases where gangmasters have infringed employment regulations.

'Exploited workers'

One example is a case of a group of migrant workers who travelled from Poland after each paid a gangmaster 300.

The treated received by the men and women, who worked in the food processing industry in south Norfolk, included:

  • Having 10 deducted from the wages of all the employees after two other employees damaged some equipment
  • Having 20 deducted from their salary each week for transport to the place of work, even if they did not use it
  • Men and woman who did not know each other having to share the same bedroom accommodation.
  • Klara Skrivankova, a people trafficking researcher with Anti-Slavery International, said the GLA was in its early days and she was waiting to see "action on enforcement" to stop unscrupulous gangmasters.

    A spokesman for the GLA said the organisation does have teeth with "severe" penalties of up to 10 years imprisonment for unlicensed gangmasters.

    He added: "The GLA is about to pass its first three cases for prosecution to lawyers... and last month it revoked 13 licenses."

    "The GLA will only make a difference through effective enforcement - through cautions, arrests, revocations and loss or disruption of business."

  • Ghosts co-writer and producer Jez Lewis will be answering questions after the 2000 GMT screening of the film on 25 March at Cinema City, Norwich.



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