The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has warned that government plans to strip the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) of powers to regulate the forestry sector, land agents and cleaning contractors operating in the food processing industry would put thousands of vulnerable workers at risk.
Under the new proposals, which could be introduced later this year, agencies in these sectors would no longer have to get a GLA licence before they start operating or be subject to inspections by the GLA.
The GLA will also no longer be able to protect the rights of apprentices supplied through an apprentice training agency, people employed through the government's work programme, or volunteers.
With more than one in four apprentices already paid below the minimum weekly rate, removing some trainees from the GLA remit sends completely the wrong signal about apprenticeships being paid decently and offering a proper introduction to the world of work, says the TUC.
Ministers also say they want "lighter regulation" when it comes to initial inspections by the GLA, which the TUC says could lead to further abuses in sectors already covered by the GLA and permit rogue operators to return.
In its submission to the government consultation on changes to the GLA remit, which closed yesterday (21 June), the TUC warns that watering down the GLA will encourage bad bosses not to comply with health and safety standards, basic employment rights or tax obligations when supplying agency staff.
Instead of reducing the scope of the GLA, its remit should be extended to other high-risk sectors including construction, hospitality and social care, says the TUC.
TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady said: "We all remember the horrible events of Morecambe Bay and it defies logic for the government to scale back the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.
"The GLA licence is not red tape. It provides vital safeguards for people working in high-risk industries, it ensures that people are paid the minimum wage and makes sure apprentices are not exploited. It also increases consumer confidence that workers who help prepare their food are not being mistreated."
She concluded, "Rather than reducing the GLA's ability to protect vulnerable workers the government should be looking to extend its licensing powers to other industries such as construction."