A gangmaster is a person that oversees and organises the work of casual manual labourers, often on an informal basis. Since the early-19th century, gangmasters have operated in the agriculture and horticulture industries, using casual workers to meet irregular and unpredictable labour demands.
The Agricultural Gangs Act of 1867 defined a gangmaster as someone ‘…who hires children, young persons, or women with a view to their being employed in agricultural labour on lands not in his own occupation’.
There is a lack of clarity about the distinction between a modern gangmaster and an employment agency, as the term is used across a wide range of sectors, including construction. Some gangmasters have offices and supply casual labour to large organisations on a daily basis, while others operate less formally on word-of-mouth basis and through personal connections.
The term ‘gangmaster’ can be controversial since workers, who are often immigrants, can be vulnerable to exploitation in the form of low rates of pay and/or reduced access to employment benefits, access to personal protective equipment and so on, which can put them at risk on a construction site.
The Gangmasters (Licensing) Act was introduced in the wake of the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster. This established a non-departmental public body called the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) which was intended to provide licences to employment agencies, labour providers or gangmasters who supply workers to the following sectors:
- Shellfish gathering.
- Any associated processing and packaging.
The establishing for GLA came under criticism from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) for failing to extend to the construction sectors, among others. The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) estimated that East European workers were being paid as little as £8.80 for a 39-hour week, and lobbied the Government to extend the GLA to construction.
On 12th January 2016, the Government released its response to a consultation ‘Tackling exploitation in the labour market’ conducted by the Home Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It included plans to expand the remit of the existing GLA to all employment sectors, including the construction industry.
Other proposed changed include reforming and renaming of the GLA to become the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), which the government says will have stronger powers to combat labour exploitation across all sectors.
According the consultation findings, ‘[The GLAA] will be given police-style enforcement powers in England and Wales to help it tackle all forms of exploitation in all sectors. It will retain the existing licensing regime, but this will be reformed to be more flexible and capable of responding to changing risk, subject to Ministerial decisions, on the advice of the Director of Labour Market Enforcement.’
NB: The Modern Slavery Act, scheduled for Royal Assent on 26th March 2016, will require that organisations with a turnover of more than £36m make publicly-available statements about their approach to identifying and mitigating risks relating to modern slavery.
See Modern Slavery Act and sustainable supply chains for more information.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Construction Skills Certification Scheme CSCS.
- Construction Workers Compensation Scheme.
- Diversity in the construction industry.
- Exploring the impact of the ageing population on the workforce and built environment.
- Intermediaries legislation.
- Modern Slavery Act and sustainable supply chains.
- Payroll companies.
- Permit to work for construction.
- Tackling the construction skills shortage.
- Umbrella companies.
 External references
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