A weak GLA will strengthen rogue gangmasters
Agency workers can be badly exploited by labour providers operating in the shadows of the British economy. I can’t think of a more tragic example than when 23 Chinese cockle pickers working under a rogue gangmaster drowned in Morecambe Bay in 2004.
The incident galvanised a broad coalition of unions, supermarkets, industry operators and politicians to call for the establishment of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) in 2005. Since then, the GLA has made a serious contribution to improving rights at work, reducing tax evasion and reigning in rogue operators, especially through inspecting all new applicants before granting them a license to operate.
But now the government is now proposing to weaken its inspection system in the name of doing away with “red tape”. This would be a disaster for already vulnerable workers: even on the GLA’s own analysis, this change could see up to one in five rogue Gangmasters being granted licenses to operate.
Back in May last year, the government announced that it would keep the GLA but would cut back on inspecting all new applicants. Instead, the GLA would move to a risk-based approach: inspecting only those that that had reports of non-compliance from other government departments (OGD), as well as one in ten applicants at random. This is all in the name of removing, “unnecessary regulatory burdens and costs for responsible employers”.
This makes little sense. As our submission to the current GLA inquiry says:
On the GLA’s own analysis, a move to a risk-based approach to application inspections could see as many as one in five non-compliant gangmasters being granted licenses. Reducing controls at the point of entry is likely to lead to an increase of rogue gangmasters. This will undermine the effectiveness of the GLA in tackling tax evasion and in raising compliance with basic employment and health and safety standards. It will also undermine the credibility of the GLA licence.
The problem is that OGD data is:
…a very poor proxy for detecting non-compliance with GLA standards. In fact there is a negative correlation – Gangmasters are more likely to be non compliant with GLA standards where OGD data suggests they have a clean record.
Two previously studies commissioned by the GLA came to the same conclusion: there is a lack of robust data to justify a move to risk-based inspections.
And rather than reducing “unnecessary regulatory burdens and costs” on business, these changes would most likely create them. Supermarkets will be pressured to replace one effective GLA inspection (with its statutory inspection powers) with many ineffective private audits. In criticising the proposed changes, Justin King, the head of Sainsbury’s said:
We cannot perform the role of the GLA in policing labour abuses right through the entire supply chain and we are aware that without the intelligence received by the GLA a number of supply chain issues would go undiscovered.
The Association of Labour Providers which represents many of those subject to the GLA’s licensing scheme also opposes the change, arguing it:
…has the potential to make it easier for rogue gangmasters to operate in the sector which would generate unfair competition for law-abiding labour providers and increase the risk of vulnerable workers being mistreated.
It will also be far more expensive for the GLA to investigate and tackle rogue operators already let loose in the sector than weed them out through application inspection in the first place.
Rather than weaken the GLA, an impressive pile of research (see EHRC, JRF, TUC, Oxfam, OSCE) concludes that the GLA is effective, but under resourced. There is also a compelling case for extending the GLA’s remit into other sectors with vulnerable workers such as hospitality, care homes and especially construction. The GLA currently only covers 150,000 workers – well short of the 2 million vulnerable workers estimated by the TUC’s Commission on Vulnerable Employment.
Sadly, the GLA’s already limited resources will have been slashed by almost 20 percent by the end of this parliament, and the government will soon consult on shrinking the number of sectors the GLA covers.
This would further weaken protection for workers that are already limited. Take this excerpt from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on forced labour in the UK food industry last year:
Work is tough, low-paid and insecure; many interviewees barely earned enough to survive. Fear and powerlessness were almost ubiquitous, with ample evidence of workers made to feel expendable and replaceable. Although none were actually coerced into work, this insecurity, allied with material deprivation, made it difficult to distinguish between free and unfree employment relationships.
On what planet would strengthening protections for workers facing this situation be considered to be red tape?