In the wake of the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers’ disaster, regulation of gangmasters was tightened to safeguard the welfare and interests of workers. The Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 introduced a licensing scheme to prevent the exploitation of workers in certain food and agriculture related industries and the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority (GLA) was set up in 2005 to regulate this.

A gangmaster is, primarily, anyone who supplies or uses an individual to do work which the Act applies to. The Act is widely cast and covers agriculture; forestry; dairy farming; the production of consumable produce; the raising of animals that will enter the food chain; and the use of land as grazing, meadow or pasture land. The Act also applies to the processing and packaging of any product containing an agricultural component; any animal product that will enter the food chain; shellfish, fish or products derived from shellfish or fish; plants, flowers or bulbs; and pet and animal feed; even shellfish gathering is covered.

Under the Act, it is an offence to operate without a licence; to obtain or possess a false licence or related false documentation; to use an unlicensed gangmaster (subject to a defence of taking reasonable steps – for example, conducting due diligence); or to obstruct enforcement or compliance officers from exercising their functions under the Act.

The Government has announced plans to reduce the remit of the GLA. This follows the recommendation contained in the Beecroft Report to abolish the GLA and to repeal the Act and the accompanying regulations. The Report argued that the GLA has little impact, is not cost effective and has imposed a considerable financial and administrative burden on gangmasters. Although the Government decided not to abolish the GLA, as part of the Government's 'red tape challenge' to reduce regulations and inspections, it has decided that the GLA will not cover as many industries; that it will be easier to obtain a licence; and that there will be fewer inspections, and disruption will be minimised when spot checks are conducted. This is in an attempt to concentrate on the most extreme cases and provide more ‘light touch’ regulation for the majority of gangmasters.

The General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress has commented that the proposals will reduce protection for many vulnerable workers, and that the proposals will make it easier for new gangmasters (including those who have lost licences previously) to set up without facing proper checks. Commentators have also called for stronger fines and tougher sentences for breaching the Act.  

Meanwhile, it has recently been reported that 205 people have been identified as operating as illegal gangmasters since 2008, and that 122 of these were in 2011 alone. Although the maximum sentence for operating as a gangmaster without a licence is ten years in prison, those identified as illegal gangmasters have only been given warning notices. MPs have said that rural communities are being negatively affected by crime and anti-social behaviour committed by poorly treated workers.

As always there is a trade off between the competing interest groups and at present it is uncertain what will happen with the GLA. None the less, gangmasters must still obtain the necessary licences in order to avoid any potential prosecution under the Act. For employers who use the services of gangmasters, it would be prudent to check that they are properly licensed so that the “due diligence” defence can be used if necessary.