With the influx of cheaper workers from new entrants to the European Union, one could be forgiven for thinking that supply of labour to the food industry is plentiful, happy and free. In the UK new legislation and an authority overseeing labour providers, oh, and the tiny matter of the abolition of slavery two hundred years ago, was expected to solve the problems of illegal labour practices and unscrupulous providers of temporary labour. The problem was that before the UK legislation was implemented regarding labour providers, the industry was unlicensed and dominated by unscrupulous operators. Many in a pool of new legitimate labour that came to find work, instead found themselves swallowed by the wave of illegal and forced labour provided by some gangmasters, as they are called in the UK. Labour providers using whatever means necessary to lower the price they need to charge to make a profit are likely to be more successful than those operating within the law and incurring more costs that need to be covered. Legitimate migrants with a right to work in the UK found themselves on the wrong side of the law, with none of the protection from exploitation they could expect. So not only were illegally-trafficked people being exploited, but also those who were legitimate with legal right to stay and work. Today, with the UK's new laws and authority regulating labour, and the unavoidable publicity the issue is receiving, any continued use of illegal workers or providers makes food companies complicit and culpable. The 2004 deaths of 23 exploited Chinese cockle pickers in the UK revealed to the world a glimpse of the human tragedy that was rife then. People were not only being illegally trafficked into the country, but were also being forced to work under appalling conditions including threats of violence, payment withheld and in some extreme cases as 'bonded' labour. A definition of slavery incorporating force, control, and other abuses was not only describing the past or even countries where human rights violations are commonplace, but the modern day Britain. A plea of ignorance used to be an excuse, not a defence however, as none was previously required. But since the UK Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) was created, with supporting legislation, it's now a criminal offence to run an unlicensed labour provider or use such labour. From 1 December 2006, it has been illegal to use labour supplied by unlicensed labour providers, known as gangmasters. The penalties for those convicted can be up to six months in prison, a £5,000 (€7,400) fine, or both. This, one would expect, would spell the end for such practices, but not so. While the GLA has issued 953 licenses and said that the most suppliers and users were honest operations working under difficult market conditions, a significant number of unlicensed operations continue. The Food and Drink Federation, an industry organisation, continues to deny that a problem exists among its members. The truth is that any company or individual that uses unlicensed labour simply doesn't care enough to check a website or make a phonecall. Would they be that reckless in before making any other business decision? One doubts not. If they don't know whether they are using unlicenced labour, they should. George Reynolds is a reporter for FoodProductionDaily.com and FoodProductionDaily-USA.com. He has a law degree and holds UK accounting and journalism qualifications.
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