The Tories Toothless Anti-Slavery Initiatives: The Case of the Gangmasters’ and Labour Abuse Authority

The government like to bleat about the existence of modern-day slavery and labour exploitation, but it is their own anti-union and anti-worker policies that contribute to intensifying those very same problems. One of the Tories flagship bodies in the propaganda war against bad bosses is the Gangmasters’ and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), but recent reports continue to demonstrate that it is totally toothless in its ability to stamp out modern-day slavery. Just yesterday the Financial Times (July 17) reported:

“The agency responsible for investigating the UK’s worst labour abuses should be handed enhanced powers to carry out regular checks on workplaces, one of the body’s most senior officials has said. Darryl Dixon, head of single enforcement at the Gangmasters’ and Labour Abuse Authority, said “beat policing” powers would make its work more effective after inspectors were unable to oblige textile company managers to admit them to investigate labour standards in Leicester.”

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So, this month the GLAA undertook 20 visits to Leicester-based textile factories, but in every site visit they undertook they had to obtain the consent of the workplaces’ owners. “It’s a reasonable assumption that a company that gives you consent may be operating legally,” Mr Dixon said, putting the nonsense to the fact that the GLAA has any real enforcement power at all. It turns out that at the moment the GLLA can only force entry into “agricultural and shellfish businesses to check whether they are complying with the terms of their licences to employ casual workers.”

This is a longstanding problem that was hiding in full sight of the government, they have just failed to do anything about it, perhaps because of their sensitivity about infringing upon the rights of profiteers to exploit their employees!

In May 2018 the GLAA published a report titled “The nature and scale of labour exploitation across all sectors within the United Kingdom” which highlighted the ongoing problems the Agency faced with obtaining prosecutions noting:

“The volume of Modern Slavery Human Trafficking cases referred for prosecution in the UK rose by 10% between 2015/16 and 2016/17, with the highest volume ever recorded in the latter. However, the number of convictions decreased by 6% during this period.”

In making this point the GLAA cited an article published in the Independent (October 11, 2017) which once again demonstrated how little the government care about really supporting exploited workers when it noted:

“Trafficking and modern slavery campaigners and charity workers said the figures were a sign that victims often do not feel safe enough to give evidence about the crime due to a lack of emotional support and concerns that they will not be guaranteed safety by the Government following the trial.”

The following year little had changed, with figures showing “that in the 2017-18 financial year, 239 suspects were charged with modern slavery offences and 185 people were convicted.” That was just 4 extra convictions compared to the previous year, even though the “number of modern slavery prosecutions has risen by more than a quarter” on the previous year. While more recently a report produced by the government’s Office for National Statistics (“Modern slavery in the UK: March 2020”) determined that “there were 205 suspects of modern slavery flagged cases referred from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for a charging decision in England and Wales in the year ending March 2019.” Of these cases 68% resulted in convictions, that is, just 139 convictions! Things appear to be moving backwards.

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Here it is worth pointing out that in comparison to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which has had it funding slashed by the Tories in recent years, the GLAA has received increasing levels of funding over the past decade. That said, the GLAA’s funding is hardly high. In late 2019 the Financial Times cited the opinion of the charitable group Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex) which…

“…said the UK had allocated an annual budget of only £7.69 per member of the workforce to labour enforcement. The equivalent sum in Ireland was twice that, while Norway spent three times that figure. ‘If the GLAA is to make progress in high-risk sectors it must be properly resourced to extend its licensing regime to meet the challenges Brexit will undoubtedly bring,’ Flex said.”

Funding levels were discussed in detail with the government’s “United Kingdom Labour Market Enforcement Strategy 2019/20” which was produced by the Tories Director of Labour Market Enforcement, Sir David Metcalf. The report notes that the “GLAA currently receives £7.1 million each year from the Home Office to undertake its duties. This has risen considerably in the last two years, largely to accommodate the additional staffing required to fulfil the expanded remit resulting from the Immigration Act 2016…”[1]

But even with expanded funding and staffing GLAA inspections were still rare. Metcalf went on to explain:

“Discussions I had with a former GLAA licensing compliance officer appeared to corroborate this. Compliance officers were apparently under-utilised, as evidenced by the considerable reduction in compliance inspections and licence revocations over time. Under the current approach, it was felt that it was too easy for rogue gangmasters to evade the necessary scrutiny. Even where licences are revoked there is often evidence of phoenixing. A more effective way of assessing compliance would be to undertake unannounced visits.”[2]

Yes, that sounds like a good idea, but it is a shame that it is still not being done. But as most people already know, the most important way of protecting workers from ongoing abuse is by workers collectively fighting to ensure that every worker in this country has the right to organise within trade unions in their workplaces.

In recent months the pandemic and local lockdown in Leicester may have drawn attention to Boohoo’s reliance upon sweatshops in our city, but we should be mindful that the problem is far bigger than even this. At the end of the day workers are super-exploited in all manner of industries that dominate our national and global landscape, a point well-made in an article titled “Labour abuses happening ‘at scale’ far beyond Leicester, warn rights groups.” The article lays out the capitalist problem like this:

“Labour and migrant rights groups say that workers in sectors such as furniture, construction, contract cleaning, recycling and domestic work are also being paid less than the minimum wage and experience wage theft, unsafe working conditions, verbal and physical abuse, and unpaid overtime.

‘Exactly the same labour abuses that the government and brands are professing shock and horror over in Leicester are happening at scale across the country,’ said Emily Kenway, a senior adviser at Focus on Labour Exploitation (Flex).

‘It’s not just garments. In the construction sector in London we found a huge amount of abuse, underpayment of wages, verbal and physical intimidation. We know migrant cleaners are having their rights abused. The list goes on. It is not acceptable that action is only taken when the most extreme cases come to light. Basic labour laws are simply not being upheld across the country and that is corrosive and wrong.’”

NOTES

[1] “Staff numbers at the then-called Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) peaked at 89 in 2010/11 but fell significantly to 72 in 2011/12 and then further to 66 in subsequent years. According to GLA annual reporting much of this decline occurred on the licensing side, falling from 33 staff in 2009/10 to 21 by 2011/12. Over the same period, enforcement staff increased from 31 to 51.

“The recent expansion of GLAA’s remit has seen a marked increase in staffing levels. In 2017/18, the average GLAA headcount was 108 staff (including 16 compliance officers). By September 2018, total staffing stood at 126.”

[2] Metcalf defines phoenixing as “The practice of carrying on the same business or trade successively through a series of companies where each becomes insolvent in turn.”

One comment

  1. another note:

    The Guardian newspaper was founded by John Edward Taylor.

    This man owned a cotton plantation with slaves. He was anti abolitionist and attacked Abraham Lincolns policies. This makes him at least as problematic as Edward Colston, if not more.

    As of today the Guardian still has articles online extolling him as a virtuous man. No mention of his racist actions was made, as far as was seen.

    Given the Guardian paints itself as sympathetic to the BLM cause, its lack of comment on Taylor’s chequered history beggars belief.

    Boycott the Guardian newspaper.

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