It’s almost seven years since 23 Chinese cockle pickers working for a gangmaster were swept out to sea and drowned in Morecambe Bay. An investigation found that they had not been equipped or prepared for the conditions they were working in. The gangmaster was found guilty of 21 counts of manslaughter. Only 21 counts, because two bodies were never found.
Gangmasters - people who employ large numbers of casual workers - had gone from strength to strength since the Conservative government introduced the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act in 1994, abolishing the system through which employment agencies had to be licensed.
Public revulsion at the Morecambe Bay tragedy led to the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004, and the creation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA)  in 2005. Concerned mainly with the agricultural and food processing sectors, its mission was ‘To safeguard the welfare and interests of workers whilst ensuring Labour Providers operate within the law.’
Since it was established, the GLA has uncovered a catalogue of horrors , including; trafficked and forced labour, physical and mental mistreatment, debt bondage, workers paid far below the minimum wage, illegal deductions from wages to pay for squalid and overcrowded accommodation, and workers forced to work in unhealthy or dangerous conditions.
Now, presumably as part of its ‘bonfire of the quangos’ or ‘red tape challenge’ it seems  the government is preparing to either abolish, or severely curtail the powers of the GLA.
The Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility (ECCR) has co-signed a letter to the Government, co-ordinated by the Institute for Human Rights and Business, urging the retention of the GLA in its present form. Indeed, it believes its work is so valuable that earlier in the year a joint proposal  from ECCR and other partners called on the Government to extend the GLA’s remit to other employment sectors, as it currently does not cover areas like care work, hospitality and construction, where exploitation is known to be a problem.
If ever a quango was needed, surely this one is. If ever red tape had a vital purpose, the licensing of those who employ large numbers of vulnerable workers surely does. Regulations in such areas are not inconvenient red tape, they are what make a society civilised.
As the economic situation gets worse there will be more and more unscrupulous businessmen or criminal gangs tempted to cut corners and make money at the expense of vulnerable workers. As unemployment rises, more and more desperate people will be available to be exploited. In hard times, the GLA is needed more than ever.
No matter what it may say, if the government proceeds to abolish or even weaken this vital protection for vulnerable workers, any claim to care about the people at the bottom of the economic heap will ring extremely hollow. It will, perhaps, give credence to what Winston Churchill said in 1904 when asked what a Conservative government would mean. It would mean, he said, amongst other things, ‘cheap labour for millionaires.’
© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement.