VEGA News Item

Gangmasters. How are our fruit and veg picked? - 25/05/2005
"Mary, Mary, quite contrary. How does your garden grow?
I live in a flat, you stupid prat, so how the hell should I know?"

Generations who once dug for victory, helped upon the allotment or picking, (as impecunious students) fruit or hops- and just plain scrumping-or were excused school for a day or two are being lost to a population innocent of the toil of the gangs for the dirty, back-breaking jobs remaining for the cheap labour of the newly hired sons of the soil (and sea) in farming, fishing, and forestry. We answer DEFRA's plea for some enlightenment. This is a crunch in the 5-a-day campaign.

To allay any quibbles we suggest and use the word gangmaster to convey no specificity of gender and anticipate no need to resort to other forms such as gangmistress.

1. We make the case for a minimum of exclusions, even at the risk of unjustified contempt for the paperwork and for the nanny state this may entail. Reasons for comparison with other industries and their standards of employment and contracts are rehearsed in the contexts of agricultural policies and CAP initiatives raising the importance of the factory floor of the farming and food industries and consideration, in a plough-to-plate, farm-to-fork manner, of traceability and HACCP stipulations. These responsibilities must embrace care of the environment, human and farm animal welfare, and of the rural community, in which good agricultural, forestry and fishing practice, brooks none of the exclusions associated with the employment of cheap labour in the production of meretriciously cheap food.
2. You have provided evidence that confirms the impression that farming, fishing, and forestry entail many “old Spanish customs,” arrangements, and understandings traditional in the food chain- and many conived at as countryman’s rights- that vary in rigor and enforcement as the practices on the farm compare with those in the last stages at the servings on plate and fork. Legislation must appreciate the problems in an unfortunate division and resistance polarized in a town v country schism and an inadequate acceptance of paperwork, bureaucracy, and traceability required as certain forms of competence apply uniformly over the food chain. Lowly, dirty, and generally unpleasant work once undertaken by “casual labour” in what were officially described in “offensive trades” are being replaced by mechanical harvesters and pickers manned by procured temporary workers operating machinery of nearly 500 hp and driving tractors at 30 mph or more along public roads, with 3rd parties at risk and need for imdemnification in instances of accidents. Employers and unskilled labourers can confuse responsibilities and enforcements over usage of red diesel. rustration in the application of the anti-hunting laws illustrates a defiance of policing and enforcement that does not match attitudes on the farmers’ factory floor to the better-trained and legislated standards and understandings of HACCP and operations overseen by the MHS further along the food chain.
3. Responsibilities for farm animal welfare may be left imprudently to untrained and unsuitable people hired from a gangmaster (who, also, may be ill-equipped to asset the required care). Such duties might entail hygiene (and thus HACCP procedures) as well as welfare (in say, dairying, slaughtering, butchering, farriery, invasive veterinary procedures such as castration, and administration of drugs, and mutilations such as beak, claw and tooth trimming). Although the farmer may know “someone up the road” or a friend or friends whom he can hire as a relief milker or at lambing time-when it is his responsibility to make appropriate contracts- he may turn to an agency or veterinary school (i.e. a gangmaster) for such services. These are eventualities with common precedents in the hiring of nurses, doctors, surgeons, vets, and farming advisors and contractors (e.g. for harvesting), when all parties must be duly rated for competence and liability.
4. These stipulations and supervisions apply also to collections of animals and to zoos and circuses. Staff hired for farm work face many hazards from agitated livestock, as well as from intoxication in silos, slurry-pits, and in lagoons of effluent; spraying, applications of pesticides, and fumigating of stores, as well as handling powerful mechanical and electrical equipment, are husbandry procedures and custom that hired workers and gangs must understand and, if necessary, be trained to the required competence by the employer and or gangmaster with understood and written responsibilities. Farmers irked by the excesses of the nanny state have to remember that the friendliest of good turns may come a cropper if the helper drives the farmer’s fork lift truck into the power lines, bringing them down, damaging the vehicle and cutting power to the dairy. Then who pays? And the farmer must expect competence and safety from accredited engineers from a pool run by certified agents (i.e. gangmasters) when the combine suffers damage in the first dry harvesting day. The SVS is acting as a gangmaster in establishing a corps of qualified vets and slaughterers for mobilisation in outbreaks and epidemics of infectious diseases. Experience from the exigencies of foot and mouth epidemic, which entailed hefty compensations paid by the taxpayer to the live/deadstock and tourist industries, coupled with the corollaries of BSE, indicate the need for such services but with the cost demanded from the errant farming industry.
5. The cost of engaging a certified gangmaster must ensure that untoward injury or other harm on site to livestock or humans as 3rd parties or incurred by the hired people can be dealt with by established procedures associated with the cheapest means of litigation and settlement. All parties must appreciate the risks of zoonotic disease and from animals agitated for one reason or another, even when confined in a crush. (which might be on a farm, in a market or dealership, or a slaughterhouse lairage). Women of childbearing age can be adversely affected if, as teachers accompanying a school visit or helping at lambing, they are in contact with ewes. In such circumstances aggrieved parties, agents, and actual employers must be prepared for responsibilities or the lack of it. Likewise, staff employed via an agency for any catering enterprise in the food chain-which might start with an on-farm restaurant or café- must be engaged in a similarly rigorous way. The parties concerned, as well as the public need to be assured that they are not being served food from a Typhoid Mary. The food chain is open to terrorism, and gangmasters must be held especially responsible for checking credentials and identification, as well as competence for the jobs; measures are in hand to tighten up these qualifications in immigrant workers. We have insisted continually in consultations with DEFRA that all handlers, owners, and users of non-human animals must be appropriately trained, licensed and inspected.
6. Similar stipulations apply to crews hired for fishing, which is an industry as hazardous to the workers as mining, and among the most dangerous of all industrial enterprises. Farmed fisheries present similar problems. Farmers and fishermen may find themselves enlisted by local councils and rescue services acting as agents seeking recruits and their equipment for jobs such as snow clearance, hauling and lifting marooned vehicles and injured or stranded animals, and manning lifeboats and coastguard duties. All of these recruitments entail the likelihood of tests of competence, risks, and provision for indemnification and payment. Temping and employment agencies act as gangmasters when they furnish farmers with office workers, with various contracts and methods of remuneration. Ordinary household maintenance and repairs are provided by major organisations and manufacturers from their gangs of engineers, and again allocations of duties, payments, reimbursements, and redress seem to be settled by established and well understood methods;or the householder, like the farmer, can engage independent services on his own judgement and at his own risk without involvement of a certified middleman and the attendant costs. Even the pimps and madams at brothels provide gangs, like slaves and livestock, in furnishing services with some regime of satisfaction and award to users and participants in this trade.

7. Conditions at livestock marts illustrate dependence on gangs recruited from rings, some run by farmers’ cooperatives, of transporters, drovers, and auctioneers and their staff, which may include hired vets recruited from local practices or provided, like the officers of the MHS (and like many nurses and doctors in the NHS), by organisations specializing, as gangmasters in fact, in meeting demands for appropriate professionals and workers. These practices may entail accreditations on immigrants and questionable flows of skills and exploitation of cheap labour.
8. The word gang implies recruitment to a labour force performing lowly or even punitive work. Gangs raised from prison populations and people ordered to do community service may be performing useful service to their masters, employers, themselves, and ultimately to the community at large. Responsibilities on gangmasters and employers for this unskilled but hopefully educative work are high and they have to be accepted as no part of the cheap labour a pool of workers drawn into the depths of intensified production of fallaciously cheap food and disruption of rural scenes abounding with the high prices of land, housing, and developments, coupled with disintegration of communities and loss of staple services. However, advances, some still controversial, in replacements for dirty work and means of overcoming the adversities of weather have lifted requirements for routine skills in farming and food production. Further, farmers are using machinery and vehicles made in Russia, India, and China, and parallel developments in high science and medicine indicate that manufacturers are raising mobile gangs of engineers needed to service and repair such devices. Signs are occurring already of personnel trained in such countries as labour in the care-industry of nursing, medicine, and hospitals. These populations would follow exchange rates and would be welcome in service industries as essential skilled labour at low prices, provided by gangmasters overseas. Similarly, employment agencies within the new EU have been recruiting and brokering transport drivers for the UK. Cheap air travel avails the mobility of such labour forces. Such practices, almost a reversion to press gangs, provide crews for ships and have happened in reverse in the building industry when demand for labour in Germany has been strong.
9. Overseas gangmasters and their workers in the UK must therefore be comprehended in our laws and their effects on our farming, food production, environment and well-being must be objectively assessed and supervised within the purview of the common good. This is a strong consideration at least for reliable means of identification.


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