Policy Papers

The return of the gangmaster

Philip Conford , Jeremy Burchardt |

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Executive Summary

  • The return of the gangmaster to British agriculture, exploiting migrant labour, has been condemned as something belonging to history rather than to the 21st century. But such exploitation is in fact a logical result of the system of contemporary food production and the EU's encouragement of labour mobility.
  • Migrant labour has for centuries been a feature of European life. In Britain, use of migrant labour in agriculture became increasingly widespread in the early 19th century. From the 1820s it became common for gangmasters to recruit female and child labour for farmers reluctant to be responsible for full-time workers. This system led to many abuses.
  • The 1867 Gangs Act brought regulation to the hiring of gangs and established a licensing system which contributed to the decline of the gangmaster system in England. It persisted in a less virulent form among Irish migrant labour.
  • The gangmasters' licensing system was abolished in the UK in 1960. But increasing labour mobility in Europe from the 1950s, Britain's entry into the EEC, and the rise of supermarkets, all contributed to the return of the gangs system. By the mid-1980s it was responsible for a range of abuses and illegal practices.
  • Despite cross-party concern in parliament and union opposition, late-twentieth-century governments of differing political persuasions were unwilling to take action. Even a major DEFRA report of 2003 had no impact.
  • Following the deaths of 23 gang members in Morecambe Bay in 2004, legislation was finally passed to re-introduce the licensing of gangmasters.
  • The scale of the problem however requires concerted international action, a change in consumer attitudes and more resources. Unless greater efforts are made to promote equality within the wider European labour market, agricultural gangs, and the abusive practices that historically have accompanied them, will continue to flourish.


In the summer of 2010, the Farmers' Guardian reported that a Lancashire gangmaster company had had its licence revoked after investigators from the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) uncovered one of the worst cases of worker abuse in recent history. Whereas thirty points of non-compliance would have been sufficient to revoke the licence, Plus Staff 24 of Skelmersdale collected an astonishing 242 points for its treatment of Latvian fruit-pickers. The company kept them trapped in employment, working for less than the minimum wage; it provided them with "filthy and dangerous" housing and in some cases made deductions from their wages which left them with no money at all. When workers needed money they were offered loans with a six per cent repayment rate. Rosie Cooper, Labour MP for West Lancashire, argued that the case highlighted the need for the government to crack down on worker exploitation. "These practices belong to history, not in the 21st century," she said.

The regrettable fact is that these practices are a systemic feature of British food production in the 21st century. Gangmasters have reappeared during the past three decades as one effect of political and economic policies which have encouraged the free movement of labour and the de-regulation of the workplace. Such was the extent of the abuse uncovered that, following a Private Member's Bill, Tony Blair's government passed the Gangmasters Licensing Act in 2004, and the GLA was established the following spring. Its passage to the statute book was facilitated by the notorious deaths in February 2004 of 23 cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay, victims of a Chinese gangmaster.

Crucial factors in the development of the current exploitation are the drive for "efficiency" which has been such a marked feature of agriculture and horticulture since the 1940s; the pressure exerted by supermarkets on their suppliers to keep costs as low as possible; and the EU's encouragement of the free movement of labour. These are all products of contemporary conditions, attitudes and policies, and make problematic a direct comparison with the past. However, a historical perspective is nevertheless essential for an understanding of the situation as it is today. The highlighting of similarities to, and differences from, the 19th-century era of agricultural gangmasters can help identify those aspects of the problem which have parallels in the past, and those which are specific to present circumstances and therefore require innovative responses.

Migrant labour and 19th-century agricultural gangs

There has always been considerable migrant labour in Europe: the present situation is not new when seen from a perspective which goes back beyond the twentieth century. In particular, movement westwards towards the North Sea has been a long-term feature of European life, with systems of migratory labour constituting a basic and integral part of the economic and social development of Europe. Migrant workers typically undertook tasks such as mowing, hay-making, harvesting, peat-cutting and brick-making. They were attracted by areas which enjoyed a well-developed economic infrastructure with capitalistic projects or single-crop cultivation; and which offered high wages. The areas from which the migrants travelled were particularly marked by the widespread predominance of small farms: a fact of continuing relevance today in relation to migrant workers from Eastern Europe. Migrant labour was likely to be found if there was a free labour market and two regions within reach of each other where wage and price levels differed considerably; it would tend to increase during periods of economic growth.

Within Great Britain, there was a considerable need for migrant labour at harvest time during the late-18th century. Irish labour was indispensable during the Napoleonic Wars, increasing further after steamboat services across the Irish Sea began operating in 1816. By the early 1830s there was a huge demand for temporary workers from outside agriculture, many coming from industry and travelling long distances. There were inflows into England of labour from Scotland and Ireland. This flow peaked during the 1840s as famine struck in Ireland. Workers came to establish particular routes, staying with the same farmers each year. Farmers would ask certain Irish migrants to bring more workers the following year; those who did so became "gaffers" and organised gangs. Although the number of Irish migrant workers was by the 1880s at about half the peak of four decades earlier, hiring fairs and markets continued until as late as the 1940s.

Farmers liked the Irish labourers on account of their capacity for hard work, their skill at hand-reaping, their mobility and their cheapness. The Irish accepted low wages and were therefore regarded by English workers with hostility and at times violently treated. It is not difficult to discern parallels with attitudes towards migrants from Eastern Europe in our own times. The Irish historian Barbara Kerr suggested that the Irish gangmasters were "responsible leaders" who protected their workers from wholesale exploitation; but she also acknowledged that there were many stories of gangmasters who proved dishonest on the way back to Ireland and withheld workers' wages.

In England, the gang system became a well-entrenched and controversial feature of agriculture during the first half of the 19th century, being identified as early as 1826. Certainly, it was most commonly found in England's Eastern counties (Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire), where larger farms and intensive cultivation were prominent and many forms of irregular work were needed, especially where newly-drained land required weeding. A major factor in the gang system's emergence was a lack of cottages and therefore of local labour. This shortage was often the result of landowners' unwillingness to foot the associated Poor Law expenses that went with settlements of labourers.

One major difference between the situation today and that in the 19th century is that the gangs of that time consisted largely of women and of youngsters of both sexes. The 1867 Gangs Act defined a gangmaster as a person "who hires Children, Young Persons, or Women with a view to their being employed in Agricultural Labour on Lands not in his own Occupation". Female casual labour had become more common in the late 18th century: because of the increasingly intensive nature of English agriculture, there was a greater demand for hoeing and weeding. The use of female labour further increased from the mid-1830s, owing to the expansion of corn output. Another important factor affecting women was the punitive 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which led many to search for work.

By 1843 the Poor Law Commissioners had identified the gang system as a thoroughly detrimental development. Gangmasters - who were generally of the same class as gang members, though with some talent for organisation - would mobilise teams of women and children, direct their work and be their paymasters. The Commissioners identified the following flaws in the system: the gang members undertook hard labour at piecework rates, with gangmasters taking any profits; uncertainty of employment, which depended on the weather; long walks to the place of work; less opportunity for education; the undue power of the gangmaster, often seen as a poor man oppressing his fellow poor; and the "imprudent" behaviour of some women, which set an undesirable moral example to the children. At some places, nearly half the gang members were between the ages of 7 and 13.

The system offered various advantages for those who were not labouring as gang members. Landlords did not need to build homes, and they escaped the burden of responsibilities to workers in their parish under the Poor Law. Farmers had easily dismissible labour; migrant workers were more "disciplined" by the uncertainty of employment and likely to work harder - especially when threatened by violence. By the 1860s the gang system had spread to various other counties on the eastern side of England, though it remained strongest in Fenland areas.

Much of the evidence for the harshness of the gang system was provided by government bodies, particularly the Children's Employment Commission. Typical work undertaken by children included weeding, stone-picking, setting and pulling potatoes, hay-making and picking turnips. Concern about the exploitation of children resulted in the passing of the Gangs Act of 1867, which specified that no child below the age of eight should be employed in a gang; that no females should be employed in gangs with men; and that gangmasters should be licensed by Justices of the Peace after an investigation into their characters.

However, there was a distinction between "public" gangs, to which legislation applied, and "private" gangs (where farmers employed gang labour directly, in effect being their own gangmasters), to which it did not. It was therefore easy to evade the sprit of the Act by turning public gangs into private ones, and in Lincolnshire in particular this was swiftly done.

Despite such sharp practice, the gang system went into decline in the later decades of the 19th century. Moral objections to the work became more powerful, and the introduction of compulsory education reduced the number of children available. Agricultural wages increased, making it less necessary for women to go out to work; having one's wives and daughters at home was a sign of rising social status. Flora Thompson recalled that in the 1880s bad memories of gangmasters gave "Candleford" women a strong distaste for field work.

The 19th-century gang system has found defenders among historians, some of whom have argued that gangmasters played (and, by implication, still play) a benign role as mentors and facilitators. Some have even implied that conditions were not in fact as harsh as they were made out to be, and that objections to gang labour were typically Victorian moralising about loose sexual behaviour. Those of a more critical persuasion, like Tom Brass, take the view that capitalist agriculture needed - and still needs - to maintain its control over workers through coercion, in order to keep costs to a minimum (2004). In Brass's view, it was not a lack of availability of adult male labour, but its cost, which led farmers to prefer women and children.

Irish migrants and English hop-pickers

Agricultural gangs did not disappear altogether: there is the interesting case of migratory workers from Ireland - especially Achill Island - helping with potato harvesting in the Lothian region of Scotland. This had started as far back as the 1830s and continued into the late-20th century, as potato harvesting took a very long time to become fully mechanised. Achill migration followed the Irish famine, with the islanders recruited by gangmasters. These gangmasters, often employed by potato merchants, transported the workers, ensured that they undertook the work, and paid their wages.

Scottish schoolchildren were employed under the gang system until the middle of the 20th century, still being used for harvesting in the years after 1945. Council-house children were used particularly, as they had less pocket money and often had family links with agriculture. But after 1962 children could no longer be granted exemption from school for agricultural work.

Another area in which schoolchildren continued to be involved until the mid-20th century was hop-picking, which employed mainly women and children as migrant labour. They travelled from London to Kent or from Birmingham and its environs to Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Farmers hired recruiting agents, organised special trains and provided accommodation which could at times be of a poor and unsanitary standard. Children returned to school late for the autumn term, and from the end of the 1940s local authorities began to prosecute parents who connived at this. The numbers of migrant hop-pickers declined dramatically from the 1950s, owing to higher wages, paid holidays and more women working full-time.

Migrant labour in post-war Europe

From the late 1950s, mobility of labour in Europe greatly increased, especially from the Mediterranean to the north and west. There was also a dramatic increase in the number of Commonwealth and Irish immigrants to the UK. The Times saw this as beneficial for everyone involved, expanding the economies of both origin and destination countries. The European Coal and Steel Community, the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation and, after 1957, the EEC promoted free movement of labour during the 1950s and '60s. By the 1970s, one observer was describing the whole of the EEC, Mediterranean Europe, Turkey and North Africa as one vast labour market. Most migrants were unskilled, unmarried, and chiefly from the Mediterranean region, and 80 per cent of them were male.

With the collapse of East European communist regimes at the end of the 1980s, earlier patterns of migration, as they had existed from around 1850 until 1939, resumed; predominantly they were from Eastern to Western Europe. It is within this context, and of the European Union, that the re-emergence of the gang system in UK agriculture and food processing should be understood.

The return of gangmasters in Britain

A study of The Landworker, the newspaper of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers (NUAAW), reveals that the issue of gangmasters disappeared almost entirely from British agriculture for several decades during the 20th century, re-appearing in the 1980s. The licensing system established under the 1867 Act lasted until 1960, when that year's Local Government Act abolished it. Gangmasters were no longer seen as a problem, and minimum rates of pay had been established by the Agricultural Wages Act of 1948. With hindsight, it is clear that during the 1970s certain developments were creating the context in which the re-appearance of the gang system became ever more likely. In East Anglia, wages were low and housing sub-standard in comparison with other regions; the canning industry was increasingly bringing in outside labour; the proportion of seasonal and casual workers in agriculture and food processing had increased, and Britain's entry to the EEC in January 1973 posed major problems for the job security of British agricultural workers.

By the early 1980s the NUAAW was concerned about the growing black economy in agricultural areas close to conurbations, where part-time British workers were threatening the jobs of farm workers by working for tax-free wages, without insurance or sick pay. In Scotland, thousands of casual raspberry pickers were working in 1930s conditions at static piece-work rates. But it was in Lincolnshire - as in the 19th century - that the gang system was most notably emerging once more, with increasing problems in Fenland areas where brassicas, bulbs and potatoes were grown. Gangmasters were exploiting seasonal labourers, taking advantage of unemployment to provide farmers with labourers who would work without holidays or sick pay. There was no security, and there was widespread abuse of Agricultural Wages Boards orders. John Selwyn Gummer, Under-Secretary of State for Employment, dismissed the concerns of Labour MP Joan Maynard, denying the existence of unscrupulous gangmasters and saying that their activities were covered by the law. The 1973 Employment Agencies Act required all such agencies to be licensed, but Maynard wanted specific six-month licenses for gangmasters, awarded by magistrates.

The gang system was back with a vengeance by the end of the 1980s, particularly in the Fens. The Conservative MP for Holland with Boston, Sir Richard Body, worked with Joan Maynard to oppose it, but the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) - of which the NUAAW had become the agricultural branch in 1982 - despaired of getting any action from the Thatcher government; indeed, the union regarded the gang system as the epitome of Thatcherite values. Anti-union legislation, it argued, had helped create a fearful, low-paid, non-union workforce.

The TGWU saw the gang system as sustained by farmers, but arguably the impetus for its return was provided by supermarkets, a new factor in food production and distribution which exerted considerable pressure on the farmers to reduce costs. Cheap labour was also required in the increasing number of packing and processing plants which were now a part of the "vertical integration" of food production and marketing. The union set about establishing its own register of gangmasters and drawing up a Gangmasters' Charter; it also drew the government's attention to gangmasters who were committing offences under social security legislation, and in 1988 the government was forced to concede that the union had a case.

Yet still no attempt was made to license gangmasters. In 1994, John Redwood's Deregulation and Contracting Out Act not only failed to legislate for the licensing of gangmasters, but also reversed the 1973 Employment Agencies Act by making it no longer necessary for any such agencies to be licensed.

The establishment of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority

As we saw earlier, it would be another ten years before Tony Blair's government finally passed legislation enabling the practices of unscrupulous gangmasters to be tackled. The case of the 23 dead cockle-pickers was just the tip of the iceberg. Innumerable cases of exploitation were identified by the TGWU, by Citizens' Advice Bureaux (CAB), and, above all, by the House of Commons. In 2003, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee published its report on Gangmasters. Somewhere between two and three thousand gangmasters supplied about half of the 72,000 seasonal workers required by agri-business.

CABs had provided powerful evidence of close connections between gangmasters and organised crime. Many gangmasters practised large-scale tax evasion; they failed to provide contracts, infringed minimum wage legislation, made illegal deductions from wages and, in a number of cases, employed their own security personnel. East Anglia had the largest number of problems, but other areas were not immune: there was cause for concern in the South-East, the Midlands, Bristol, Wales and Northern Ireland. Gangs were common in the food processing industry, as well as in agriculture and horticulture. They worked long hours for low wages, lived in squalid, barrack-like accommodation, and endured a culture of intimidation. Night-work was common, as was sickness from wet and cold conditions. Those who wanted to leave might be required to pay back the "recruitment costs" which gangmasters claimed to have spent on finding them their work. Like the Irish in the 19th century, many gang members also suffered hostility from local residents.

Thanks to the Morecambe Bay deaths, the GLA was finally established in 2004, its mission being "To safeguard the welfare and interests of workers whilst ensuring Labour Providers operate within the law". Five years on, an Oxfam report on migrant labour revealed that abuse by gangmasters persisted, and that despite the licensing of more than 1,200 firms, many unlicensed organisations still existed. The GLA had achieved some real successes in rooting out rogue gangmasters, but it lacked resources and was disadvantaged by the workers' fears of retribution if they approached the Authority. Perhaps its biggest disadvantage, though, lies in the fact that it can operate only nationally, when an international approach is essential.

The GLA has also taken the fight to the supermarkets, and in March 2010, after two years of discussion, supermarkets and suppliers agreed a protocol with the GLA, attempting to ensure that proper standards obtain all the way down the supply chain. This development was supported by the main supermarkets, the Fresh Produce Consortium, the Ethical Trading Initiative and the National Farmers' Union. The involvement of large-scale retail chains, of consumer pressure groups and of the NFU - none of which existed in the Victorian era - signifies a major difference of approach from that of the mid-nineteenth century. But whether the involvement of pressure groups - particularly if they are interested parties - can be as effective as strongly-enforced government intervention, must surely remain open to doubt.

Conclusions and proposals

The reappearance of gangmasters as a malign element in agriculture and food production is a predictable effect of contemporary social and economic forces. As in the 19th century, the gang system needs to be seen in the context of international pressures, of low wages and of lack of regulation. Now, as then, the poverty of small farmers acts to encourage migration, while larger farmers continue to seek efficiency through reducing labour costs. The geographical area from which migrant workers can be recruited has greatly expanded: the UK's membership of the EU, and the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, have extended it from the British Isles to most of post-Communist Europe.

The principle of employing the poor and vulnerable remains the same, though, as does resistance to regulation. We have seen how long it took to re-establish the practice of licensing gangmasters in the late twentieth century; the Labour government also refused for several years to agree to the EU's Temporary and Agency Work Directive, which was proposed in 2002 but which the UK blocked until 2008. The Directive's aim is to harmonise laws across Europe to prevent a "race to the bottom" in working conditions.

The present situation also contains elements which were absent in the 19th century: the links with international crime, the power of supermarkets to pressurise farmers, and the vertical integration of food production, processing and marketing. Supermarkets have helped create a situation whereby it is uneconomic to employ labour directly. The contracting out and sub-contracting of work mean that neither supermarkets nor producers are legally liable for the pay and conditions of agricultural workers.

How, then, can this blight be tackled? The CAB has identified the need for more financial support; for preventative advice in other EU countries; for information to be available in languages other than English; for local authorities to monitor housing conditions closely; and for foreign embassies to be made more aware of the problems. It is clear that the GLA could be still more effective if it were granted increased resources, and that Europe-wide co-operation is essential if a problem exacerbated by a Europe-wide policy of free movement of labour is to be brought under control. Since much gangmaster activity is illegal, the co-operation must involve international policing.

To deal with the problems therefore requires more regulation, and more resources to ensure that regulations can be enforced. The GLA's work shows that a good deal can be achieved, but its need for increased powers and funding could hardly come at a worse time, with Britain facing massive cuts in public expenditure and the Coalition government favouring policies of de-regulation. Agricultural Wages Boards are already under threat.

But what of the causes that make exploitation of cheap labour inevitable? Here, proposals for change require what amounts to a cultural and economic shift. Underlying the present system of food production in Britain are the assumptions, firstly, that efficiency should be measured according to how few workers can be employed, and, secondly, that consumers have a right to cheap food. The all-powerful supermarkets exert pressure on their suppliers, and the suppliers regard labour as a commodity which must cost as little as possible. Perhaps the protocol recently agreed between the GLA and supermarkets will ease the situation, but government regulation would be more rigorous than self-policing. Another step in the right direction might be to make the Fairtrade symbol applicable to UK foodstuffs as well as to produce from overseas; but resistance from the farming industry would be very hard to overcome.

In the end, though, any government would face the problem of persuading the public that they cannot take cheap food - or indeed any food - for granted as they have done for the past 50 years or more. To value agriculture as the most important of human activities, and to treat its workers in a way which reflects that status, would help to even the balance between consumer and producer.

Beyond this, we need to look to a wider economic and international context. Events in the 19th century showed that the gang system took hold where there was poverty. As we have seen, the European labour market now extends well beyond the boundaries of the EU. There is no escaping the fact that much more committed efforts to reduce economic inequalities between and within the countries that make up this wider region are required. Failing this, the flow of migrant agricultural labour and the abuse-prone gangs that historically have always accompanied it, will continue.

Further Reading

Tom Brass, "'Medieval Working Practices'? British Agriculture and the Return of the Gangmaster", Journal of Peasant Studies Vol.31/2, January 2004, pp. 313-40.

W. Hasbach, A History of the English Agricultural Labourer, 2nd impression 1920, P. S. King.

Felicity Lawrence, Not on the Label, Penguin 2004.

John Patrick, "Agricultural Gangs in Victorian England", History Today Vol. 36, March 1986, pp.21-26.

Gangmasters Licensing Authority website, http://www.gla.gov.uk/.


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