I was drawn in the ballot for Prime Minister’s Questions this week. Being listed at PMQs is like firing a starting gun; once the signal has gone out, the requests begin to flood in. There is no shortage of pressing concerns at the moment – the abolition of Aim Higher, the replacement of the EMA with an ill-thought out poorly funded replacement, tuition fees, work capability assessments for people with mental health problems, housing benefit caps – all have been represented in my postbag and all are things I am concerned about. But I was also mindful of the principle that too often the urgent crowds out the important, and so I returned to an issue that is still, shockingly unresolved and asked the Prime Minister why his government had – so far – failed to take action on gangmasters.
I work closely with UCATT, the construction union, as construction is an important industry for Wigan. I was horrified to be shown recent examples of workers in my constituency being forced by gangmasters to work 12 hour days, 7 days a week, refused the recent rise in the minimum wage and bullied and threatened when they complained. This doesn’t just have appalling consequences for those (usually migrant) workers who are abused and exploited – it depresses wages for everyone and causes tensions in the community. UCATT’s response to this is in the best tradition of solidarity – to stand together with the exploited and defend employment rights for all.
Their concerns are specific and becoming more urgent. The Labour government took a great leap forward, backing Jim Sheridan MP’s bill on gangmaster licensing in 2004, but despite Jim’s best efforts it only applied to agriculture and related industries. There is some evidence since then that gangmasters have moved into the construction industry which was left unregulated. Construction is an easy hit for gangmasters as the workforce is diverse and mobile; there are 274,000 construction companies in the UK, migrant labourers are common and many workers are classed as self-employed. It is not only wrong but immensely dangerous to allow this to go on – in just two years (2007-2009) 120 people died in the UK working in construction. Unregulated, migrant labour increases that risk – a risk of dying at work that is entirely unacceptable in 2010.
There are many other reasons for extending licensing to construction – unpaid taxes and tackling crime to name just two. UCATT’s project worker in Wigan, Lawrence Hunt, tells me that when exploitation is discovered the gangmaster normally disappears, the migrants are rounded up and shipped back home and the cycle continues. This is a clear cut case where government action is necessary and right. It is little short of depressing that the Labour government was slow to act on this, pledging to act but running out of time, and that the coalition’s official position remains that it will not.
As I write this David Hamilton MP is in the commons chamber trying to rectify this impasse with his Gangmaster Licensing (Extension to the Construction Industry) Bill. It won’t get through – at PMQs Cameron refused to support it. But it should and it seems yet again that it will be up to a few determined individuals to keep fighting this important battle.