Dairy farmers charged with using the services of an unlicensed gangmaster have been granted an absolute discharge by a judge.

The case included some of the biggest names in UK farming such as vice-president Gwyn Jones and Wills Bros Limited of Cornwall.

The farmers were charged after investigation by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) into Marden Management’s operation as an unlicensed gangmaster was launched in spring 2010.

Marden Management supplied British and overseas agricultural workers to UK dairy farms – including about 60 Filipino migrant workers. But a GLA investigation found the Wiltshire employment agency was not licensed as a labour provider, which is a criminal offence.

As a result, the farmers were accused of using the services of an unlicensed labour provider to employ migrant farmworkers.

At a hearing at Swindon Magistrates’ Court on Friday (8 Febraury), the remaining 15 farmers in the case – who did not appear in person – pleaded guilty to the technical offence of taking labour from an unlicensed gangmaster.

A district judge granted all the farmers an absolute discharge with no fines, but ordered them to pay £300 each towards the prosecution’s costs.

Gwyn Jones, a West Sussex dairy farmer and former vice-president, was one of the farmers accused of employing illegal farm workers – a charge he had denied.

He said: “Friday’s verdict has come as a great relief, and seems to me to have been of little benefit, least of all for the workers, many of whom have lost their original jobs.

“This case has taken its toll on all of us and I would like to thank the NFU’s legal assistance scheme which enabled us to fight our corner and get proper justice.”
Gwyn Jones

“This case has taken its toll on all of us and I would like to thank the NFU’s legal assistance scheme which enabled us to fight our corner and get proper justice.”

The NFU believes the legal proceedings cost prosecutors more than £100,000, and said it was “flabbergasting” to think how much the case had cost taxpayers.

The union also questioned why DEFRA, which brought the prosecution following the GLA’s investigation, had pursued the farmers through the courts.

Commenting on the case, NFU president Peter Kendall called the GLA’s approach “heavy-handed” and said the absolute discharge would be a “relief, but cold comfort” to the farmers involved, after three years of stress and worry.

“While they can now move on, the past three years have been incredibly difficult for these farmers and going through this ordeal has, for many, been at great personal cost,” said Mr Kendall.

The NFU has repeatedly called on the GLA to focus its regulatory activities on labour providers, not on labour users, unless there is clear evidence of exploitation on the part of the labour user.

The NFU said it hoped the outcome of the case draws a draws a line under this kind of “heavy-handed” approach by the GLA.

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