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The UK Gangmasters Licensing Agency: a model to be followed and how to undermine it

The GLA has helped mitigate labour exploitation at the British end of agricultural sector supply chains, however British immigration policies and insufficient labour protections in sending countries threaten those gains.

Crop spraying near St Mary Bourne, England. geograph.org.uk/Wikimedia Commons.

Seeking to position itself in a world of globally interconnected economies, daunted by multi-faceted competition over resources and escalating debt, 21st-century Europe has been lifting barriers to the flow of capital and labour. In the process of European market unification, production outsourcing characterised by long, cross-border product and labour supply chains and an expanding use of atypical forms of employment (e.g. posted work and temporary agency work) has become dominant. In this setting, the European Commission has produced several directives – Directive on services in the internal market, Posted Worker Directive, Agency Worker Directive – which aim to liberalise the outsourcing capacities of enterprises while regulating businesses’ flexible labour market strategies and protecting labour across the EU labour markets. Nevertheless, research indicates that workers in these atypical forms of employment are more exposed to risk factors than permanent workers.

Britain, although characterised by a flexible regulatory approach with regard to the legal status of temporary agency workers and the governance of their employment, has spearheaded global attempts at regulating the temporary agency sector over the past 10 years by establishing the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA). The GLA is a ‘non-departmental public body’ that regulates the activities of labour providers through a licensing scheme intended to protect vulnerable workers in the agriculture, horticulture, shellfish, and associated food processing industries across the UK.

The GLA inspects businesses and employment agencies, issuing or revoking licenses to operate based on what they find. It works closely with the police, immigration authorities, tax authorities, and other public statutory partners to identify, disrupt, and dismantle operations engaging in forced labour, the many crimes often labelled as ‘trafficking’, and other activities that seek to exploit human assets for profit. Indeed, according to the GLA’s 2013-2014 annual report, one of its key achievements for that year was “assisting to rescue over 100 potential victims of trafficking for labour exploitation”. Between 2008 and 2016, the GLA achieved 98 convictions in the temporary employment agency industry, 24 of which regarded businesses that had entered into arrangements with unlicensed labour providers.

The GLA as a model?

Notably, the GLA combines enforcement and constructive/preventative strategies. The GLA works closely with business. It has produced booklets for employers and recruitment agencies which give them flags to look out for; and practical checklists and advice to prevent labour maltreatment from occurring in their supply chains. For example, this literature provides guidance on wages in supply chains and demonstrates that labour cannot be supplied below a certain point without engaging in either labour exploitation or tax avoidance. The GLA has also created a multi-lingual hotline accessible for all workers in whatever environment they work.

The GLA is not a stand-alone law enforcement authority. Multi-agency working is central in GLA’s modus operandi and, to a certain extent, mitigates the fact that its remit is limited to the agricultural sector. Its involvement in criminal investigations with other law enforcement agencies has helped the latter inspect, uncover, and prosecute employers for labour exploitation and ‘human trafficking’ in other sectors as well.

Controlling who enters the country is regarded as much more important than controlling how someone fares within it.

That said, the GLA’s effectiveness is undermined by several aspects of its operating environment. While the GLA’s collaboration with other authorities has some benefits, its ties to law enforcement can also negatively impact its image as a ‘protector’ of labour in the eyes of some workers, especially those with irregular immigration statuses. Apart from this, the diverse public policy priorities of collaborating authorities may also impair the capacity of the GLA to identify illegalities in supply chains and see through investigations. For example, in a country that enthusiastically enforces immigration policies while also curtailing access to legal aid and support, people that could potentially qualify for assistance as ‘victims of trafficking’ are less likely to come forward and denounce illegal practices.

The funding of the GLA also indicates that labour law enforcement and worker protection is a negligible priority compared to immigration enforcement. Compared with the £2.17 billion budget and 23,500 staff of the former UK Border Agency in 2011/12, the GLA staff of 69 officers and a £2.8 million budget in 2014/15 spells a clear message: controlling who enters the country is regarded as much more important than controlling how someone fares within it. Indeed, the situation has only worsened in recent years due to the British government’s austerity cuts, and in recent times we’ve seen reductions in in the budgets of all public statutory organisations upholding and supporting the criminal justice system.

Last but not least, the role of the GLA is becoming evermore important, and evermore difficult, as the UK food industry becomes more and more dependent on foreign-recruited labour. The GLA has attempted to adjust to the cross-border nature of labour supply chains, and all foreign employment agencies engaged with British business are supposed to be licensed with the GLA. The GLA has also actively sent enforcement officers to countries of origin to conduct training exercises and to support local authorities in applying their own labour laws when workers are recruited by overseas employment agencies. This has only had limited effectiveness to date. My own research indicates that the regulatory hand of GLA hardly reaches the foreign agencies recruiting labour on the ground, and more efforts are required towards a cross-European mainstreaming of relevant legal and operational instruments.

To conclude, the GLA has set a good practice precedent in mitigating labour exploitation at the British end of agricultural sector supply chains. It practically regulates labour in a £100 billion sector with a budget of 0.004% of that figure. However, sustaining existing achievements and transferring them over to different economic sectors is not easy, in large part because doing so conflicts with other public policy priorities in both Britain and in labour sourcing countries.


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