Ensuring gangmasters are working within the law

I’m an HR manager at a food processing company that also owns some fruit farms. We use lots of labour supplied by gangmasters. How can I be sure they’re operating within the relevant laws and how can I safeguard my company’s position in case they aren’t?”

Gangmasters are obliged to have a licence from the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) and it is a criminal offence for a gangmaster to operate without one.

It is also an offence for businesses in food processing and farming to use labour supplied by an unlicensed gangmaster, unless the labour user can show they took all reasonable steps to ascertain if the gangmaster had a licence and that they had no reasonable grounds to suspect he was unlicensed. The maximum penalty for using an unlicensed gangmaster is six months in prison and a fine.

To safeguard against the risks, the GLA public register should be your first port of call. The register lists all labour providers who hold a licence.

You should check the register before agreeing to take on labour from a gangmaster. You need to ensure not only that the gangmaster business is registered, but also that the person you deal with when negotiating terms is authorised under the licence. Ensure you keep a copy of the register entry.

Repeat checks should be made at regular intervals – say at least every three months. Better still, sign up for the GLA’s Active check service that will alert you if a particular gangmaster loses his licence or if there is a change in those authorised to negotiate on behalf of the gangmaster.

Even if a gangmaster has a licence, if he has been exploiting workers, perhaps by flouting health and safety legislation or paying below the minimum wage, the GLA can effectively shut down his business by withdrawing the licence. You should, therefore, make contingency plans for alternative suppliers of labour against the possibility of one particular supplier being the subject of enforcement action by the GLA.

You also need to be sensitive to signs of worker exploitation. While you may not be responsible for any wrongdoing, scandals about mistreatment of workers can be damaging and your reputation could be severely dented if your labour suppliers are operating outside the law and the GLA catches up with them.

The GLA publishes, on its website, the minimum rate that a labour provider is likely to have to charge to meet legal obligations relating to employment of workers. A gangmaster charging less than those rates should set alarm bells ringing. Similarly, be alert to complaints by workers about such things as not being paid properly, dodgy accommodation, threats and abuse etc.

Owen Warnock, employment law partner, Eversheds

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