Supplying or using labour in the agricultural sector requires a GLAA licence, and the penalties for not having one, or failing to meet its standards, are gaining in severity. We explain what a GLAA licence covers and why the Authority’s approach to tackling labour market abuses may have intensified.
On 5 February 2004, 23 Chinese cockle pickers were abandoned on the mudflats of Morecambe Bay and left to drown in the dark by their “ruthless and criminal gangmaster” Lin Liang Ren. “We all came [to the UK] for the same reason,” said Li Hua, the sole survivor of the tragedy, ten years later. “We left our families to make a better life. And they were gone just like that. I was just lucky.”
What is the GLAA?
The Morecambe Bay disaster – along with the callous actions of Lin Liang Ren, who was subsequently jailed for 14 years at Preston Crown Court – led to the creation of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), a non-departmental public body with the aim of protecting vulnerable workers and preventing their exploitation.
The GLAA investigates all aspects of labour exploitation in England and Wales, including worker exploitation, human trafficking, forced labour, illegal labour provision, and offences under the National Minimum Wage and Employment Agencies Acts.
Acting on intelligence it receives from inspections, the public, and other government departments, the GLAA works with various partners to tackle serious and organised crime.
According to its annual report and accounts, which were published on 12 December 2022, the GLAA led 241 out of a total 315 investigations between 1 April 2021 and 31 March 2022. These identified more than 16,000 potential victims of labour market abuse and recovered around £78,000 for exploited workers.
During this time, the GLAA also secured its first prosecution for offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, after investigators discovered a victim who had been “kept in a padlocked shed on a mattress, unable to leave unless I was told I could” by two offenders for 40 years.
Perhaps its most high-profile work, however, has been the GLAA’s leadership of Operation TACIT, a taskforce set up in 2020 to investigate allegations of unsafe working practices and worker exploitation at garment factories in Leicester during the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to reports, including an investigation by the Sunday Times, workers at many factories were paid below the minimum wage, encouraged by employers to illegally top up pay with benefits, and forced to continue working during lockdown with few – if any – social distancing measures in place.
Since TACIT began, numerous organisations, including the GLAA, have visited and investigated more than 500 factories, identifying various issues such as fire safety, Covid controls, unsafe machinery, and a lack of running water.
What is a GLAA licence?
In addition to its investigative work, the GLAA operates a mandatory licensing scheme for legal entities that supply or use labour in the agriculture, horticulture, and shellfish industries, as well as any associated processing and packaging activities.
Applying to both temporary and permanent labour, a GLAA licence operates based on eight standards, all of which concern the fair treatment of workers, and the licence holder’s ability to meet its obligations as a legally responsible employer. For a legal entity to which a licence applies, failure to hold, or meet the requirements of, a licence can lead to prosecution and even the forced cessation of business activities.
Receiving a GLAA licence is not the end of the story, however. In addition to annual renewals, licence holders must also prepare to be regularly assessed against the standards by a points-based system. For those that fail this test, the GLAA may either suspend a licence pending corrective action or revoke it entirely. This will depend on the severity of the issues identified.
In 2018, for example, a chicken-catching business was forced to cease trading after its licence was revoked. According to the GLAA, the business was “unwilling to comply with the standards and had shown a wholesale disregard for the licensing scheme,” due to inaccurate worker pay, insufficient breaks, and a failure to provide workers with copies of their employment contracts. Despite the business claiming to have rectified the issues after the GLAA’s investigation, its licence was still revoked, suggesting that prevention is not only better than cure – it supersedes it. Indeed, the GLAA reiterated this when reporting the case, stating that “compliance with licensing standards must be demonstrated at the time of inspection, not at a later date”.
How can a regulated business obtain a licence?
Legal entities must apply for a licence via the GLAA’s online application form. If granted, a licence lasts for 12 months, after which it must be renewed.
The GLAA’s public register keeps a record of all licences issued, as well as those that have been revoked or are in application. As such, it is advisable to prepare before initiating the application process to ensure that a business has identified, and fixed, any potential issues.
At a minimum, businesses wishing to apply for a GLAA licence should identify a Principal Authority – that is, someone who is responsible for the day-to-day management of the business – to be named on the application. They should also review, and make adequate copies of, anything that the GLAA may require as evidence of compliance, such as contracts, terms and conditions, and wage records.
Working with experts at this stage has arguably never been more important, particularly as the GLAA’s response to potential infringements appears to be increasing in severity. Even confusion between the applicability of cutting fruit versus picking it when considering a licence has led to threats of prosecution. Whether or not this hard-line approach to perceived non-compliance is in response to criticism regarding a lack of convictions following Operation TACIT’s launch, it does suggest there is little room for assumptions and mistakes.
Furthermore, although only agriculture, horticulture, and shellfish-related industries require a licence, this does not prevent the GLAA from investigating and pursuing exploitative working practices in other sectors, particularly those at a higher risk of modern slavery, such as construction, manufacturing, and hospitality. As such, businesses in these industries would do well to familiarise themselves with, and comply with, the GLAA’s licensing standards, regardless of whether they intend to apply for a licence.
For any business that uses or supplies labour – particularly from migrant workers – the GLAA’s licensing standards provide a useful benchmark for responsible business practices. In abiding by its advice, businesses can not only demonstrate compliance with all applicable employment laws, but also – and more importantly – ensure all employees receive the fair and equitable treatment they deserve.