In response to concerns about the way in which some agricultural gangmasters systematically exploit their workers, the Government set up an Interdepartmental Working Party to look in detail at the activities of gangmasters. This concluded that, of the 2000 plus gangmasters active in agriculture, some 20% were thought to be committing a range of offences including exploiting their workers, for example through low pay, excessive wage deductions, non collection or declaration of tax and National Insurance contributions, non payment of VAT, poor worker safety and use of illegal immigrants. In many cases workers are working whilst in receipt of state benefits. The Working Party identified a wide range of legislation affecting the activities of gangmasters, enforced by some 8 different Government departments. In conclusion, the Working Party recommended that a comprehensive package of measures should be adopted. This involves co ordinated enforcement, provision of information to employers and employees and industry action through a code of practice. 'Operation Gangmaster' was officially launched on 9 June 1998.
Operation Gangmaster is being piloted during the 1998 planting, picking and harvesting season with activities concentrated in East Anglia and Lincolnshire. The Government has issued booklets for workers and employers setting out their rights and obligations. The leaflets set out for the first time in one place all legal requirements and provisions relevant to casual and seasonal workers. An industry code of practice on employment of casual and seasonal workers was launched in June 1998 by the NFU with the backing of the Fresh Produce Consortium and British Retail Consortium. It stresses the need for gangmasters to comply with existing legislation and makes a number of best practice recommendations.