Charity uncovers widespread abuse of migrant workers

Unscrupulous gangmasters and agencies have spread into poorly-regulated

sectors where workers have little or no protection of their health and

safety rights. This is the conclusion of a major report published today

(31 July) by Oxfam.

The report, Turning the tide: How to best protect workers employed by gangmasters, five years after Morecambe Bay, found evidence of gangmasters deducting workers' wages to pay for vital safety equipment and transport to work, as well as paying them well below the minimum wage.

Severe and systematic violations of health and safety law were found to be common in the construction industry, with the report identifying instances of threats to sack workers if they raised concerns.

One former construction worker from Nigeria is quoted: "I did a health and safety in construction course, so I tend to always take my own helmet, gloves and boots, which I've picked up from other sites. The other workers don't have hats and boots, as they are not provided. There is no concern for our health and safety."

In the hospitality sector, it was discovered that cleaners are paid by the room rather than by the hour, and are expected to clean more rooms than is feasible. Workers here also reported physical violence and verbal abuse, while in the care industry, some workers were found to be working nearly 100 hours a week.

Oxfam's director of UK poverty, Kate Wareing, said: "Gangmasters are now moving into poorly-regulated sectors and we are seeing that abuse is rife on building sites, in hotels and care homes. The Government urgently needs to extend rules to curb gangmasters' abuse where workers have little or no protection."

Gangmasters and agencies operating in unregulated sectors are subject to employment agency legislation, which is enforced by the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EASI). However, according to Oxfam, there is very low awareness of the regulator's work among advisors to vulnerable workers, and it has insufficient resources, with just one inspector for every 700 agencies.

Consequently, Oxfam has added its support to recent calls for the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) to be extended to the construction industry. The charity also wants the care and hospitality sectors to be covered, and advises that the functions of the EASI be transferred to the GLA to extend the Authority's licensing regime to all areas of agency labour.

To encourage vulnerable workers to voice their concerns to the authorities, Oxfam also believes there should no longer be a duty on the GLA to inspect the immigration status of workers, or share information with the UK Border Agency.

Other recommendations include giving the GLA additional powers to confiscate criminal assets and provide guidance for courts on sentencing, and fast-tracking the Temporary and Agency Worker Directive, extending it to cover notice periods and compensation for the loss of employment.

Commenting on the report, UCATT chief executive Alan Ritchie said: "The Government should take note of the growing number of groups and individuals that are now clearly saying the Gangmasters Act must be extended to the construction industry. It is only some construction employers who argue that there is not a problem."

He also accused the EASI of failing to protect vulnerable workers from being ripped off by employment agencies and gangmasters, adding: "It is time for the Government to accept EAS is not protecting vulnerable workers. The GLA should be extended on a structured basis, beginning with the construction industry."

A spokesperson for the British Hospitality Association told SHP: "We believe there is a sufficiently strong law as it stands – the minimum wage should be paid, whether staff are working by the hour or by the equivalent of piecemeal, eg. number of rooms cleaned in an hour. That is a legal requirement. 

"If workers are engaged on a piece-work basis the target should be realistic and attainable. . . Staff should not be set unattainable targets, which have the effect that pay per hour actually falls below the national minimum wage."

The report is available here.


Charity uncovers widespread abuse of migrant workers

Unscrupulous gangmasters and agencies have spread into poorly-regulated

sectors where workers have little or no protection of their health and

safety rights. This is the conclusion of a major report published today

(31 July) by Oxfam.

The report, Turning the tide: How to best protect workers employed by gangmasters, five years after Morecambe Bay, found evidence of gangmasters deducting workers' wages to pay for vital safety equipment and transport to work, as well as paying them well below the minimum wage.

Severe and systematic violations of health and safety law were found to be common in the construction industry, with the report identifying instances of threats to sack workers if they raised concerns.

One former construction worker from Nigeria is quoted: "I did a health and safety in construction course, so I tend to always take my own helmet, gloves and boots, which I've picked up from other sites. The other workers don't have hats and boots, as they are not provided. There is no concern for our health and safety."

In the hospitality sector, it was discovered that cleaners are paid by the room rather than by the hour, and are expected to clean more rooms than is feasible. Workers here also reported physical violence and verbal abuse, while in the care industry, some workers were found to be working nearly 100 hours a week.

Oxfam's director of UK poverty, Kate Wareing, said: "Gangmasters are now moving into poorly-regulated sectors and we are seeing that abuse is rife on building sites, in hotels and care homes. The Government urgently needs to extend rules to curb gangmasters' abuse where workers have little or no protection."

Gangmasters and agencies operating in unregulated sectors are subject to employment agency legislation, which is enforced by the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EASI). However, according to Oxfam, there is very low awareness of the regulator's work among advisors to vulnerable workers, and it has insufficient resources, with just one inspector for every 700 agencies.

Consequently, Oxfam has added its support to recent calls for the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) to be extended to the construction industry. The charity also wants the care and hospitality sectors to be covered, and advises that the functions of the EASI be transferred to the GLA to extend the Authority's licensing regime to all areas of agency labour.

To encourage vulnerable workers to voice their concerns to the authorities, Oxfam also believes there should no longer be a duty on the GLA to inspect the immigration status of workers, or share information with the UK Border Agency.

Other recommendations include giving the GLA additional powers to confiscate criminal assets and provide guidance for courts on sentencing, and fast-tracking the Temporary and Agency Worker Directive, extending it to cover notice periods and compensation for the loss of employment.

Commenting on the report, UCATT chief executive Alan Ritchie said: "The Government should take note of the growing number of groups and individuals that are now clearly saying the Gangmasters Act must be extended to the construction industry. It is only some construction employers who argue that there is not a problem."

He also accused the EASI of failing to protect vulnerable workers from being ripped off by employment agencies and gangmasters, adding: "It is time for the Government to accept EAS is not protecting vulnerable workers. The GLA should be extended on a structured basis, beginning with the construction industry."

A spokesperson for the British Hospitality Association told SHP: "We believe there is a sufficiently strong law as it stands – the minimum wage should be paid, whether staff are working by the hour or by the equivalent of piecemeal, eg. number of rooms cleaned in an hour. That is a legal requirement. 

"If workers are engaged on a piece-work basis the target should be realistic and attainable. . . Staff should not be set unattainable targets, which have the effect that pay per hour actually falls below the national minimum wage."

The report is available here.


Join SHP Online

  • ✔ Download free reports and research
  • ✔ Access free Digital magazine
  • ✔ Email newsletter briefings