12 June 1998

Eight-pronged purge is under way on gangmaster abuses

By Catherine Hughes

A GOVERNMENT clampdown on gangmasters who exploit agricultural workers has been announced.

Junior farm minister Lord Donoughue launched the Operation Gangmaster initiative this week following an inter-departmental working party investigation last summer.

Eight enforcement agencies will work together this year to raid farms where illegal activities are suspected. In-depth investigations into the gangmasters involved will follow.

Two raids have already taken place in the Eastern region, where most casual and seasonal workers are employed. One, in spring onion fields in Lincs, involved 30 enforcement officers from the Benefits Agency, Contributions Agency, MAFF and the Immigration Service. Of nearly 200 workers interviewed, 50 were claiming state benefits and 30 were illegal immigrants.

Although Lord Donoughue believes problems are confined to a minority of the countrys 2000 gangmasters, he said he was very concerned about the intimidation and abuse of rights to which some workers were subjected.

The NFU, in conjunction with the Fresh Produce Consortium, also launched a code of practice this week to help farmers, growers and pack-house operators understand their legal obligations. Tony Pexton, union deputy president, said casual labour was an important element of the food and farming industry.

And Barry Leathwood, national secretary for the agriculture trade group of the Transport and General Workers Union, said the governments initiative was a long time coming but did not go far enough.