The deaths of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004 brought back into use a word that had almost been forgotten in British public life – gangmaster. A Chinese man who had organised the group, described as their gangmaster, was later found guilty of the manslaughter of 21 of those who drowned.
This incident led to a wider debate about those who organised casual workers and sometimes exploited them. And it accelerated the creation of a Gangmasters Licensing Act to regulate this form of labour in sectors including agriculture, horticulture and food processing.
The new legislation surprised many, as it was widely assumed that working gangs and gangmasters had disappeared decades earlier. However Dr Philip Conford, who has studied the roots of the role in collaboration with Dr Jeremy Burchardt, suggests these forms of migrant labour and associated exploitation have existed in various forms since the 19th century.
In agriculture, European migrant labour has generally moved from areas with smaller farms to places where prices and wages were higher. One example of this was a growth in the number of Irish migrants arriving in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was around this time that the gang system developed – particularly in eastern counties of England, where accommodation for permanent farm workers was scarce and there was high demand for seasonal labour.
in the 19th century, the gang system – and, in particular, the large numbers of women and children that gangs often contained – began to attract the attention of social reformers. In the mid-19th century, the Poor Law Commissioners criticised publicly what they saw as a system that imprisoned women and children in poverty, poor accommodation, and limited educational opportunities. They also feared, adds Philip Conford, that children living and working in such gangs would “see inappropriate behaviour on the part of the women around them”.
The Gangs Act, passed in 1867, acted on these concerns, regulating the hiring of labour and introducing a licensing system, which led to a decline of the gangmaster. The passing of the Forster Education Act in 1870, creating school boards able to enforce school attendance for children up to the age of 13, also discouraged the continued use of child labour.
And so the gang system seemed in subsequent decades to move towards terminal decline, though there were exceptions, such as the continued employment of children in Scottish agriculture and English hop-picking. When the Gangs Act was abolished in 1960 it was assumed that there was no more need for it, as the gang system had been replaced by rates of pay and working conditions governed by national agreements and upheld by trade unions.
However by the end of the 1980s, argues Dr Conford, the gang system was “back with a vengeance”. Deregulation and a weakening of union influence had removed some of the obstacles. And the growing power of the supermarkets in driving down prices left farmers looking for the cheapest workforce possible.
The opening of the Iron Curtain in 1989 also created hundreds of thousands of potential new European migrants to Britain, while broader globalisation brought workers from further afield, including the ill-fated Chinese cockle-pickers.
So the role of the gangmaster was revived, sometimes linked to the trade in moving migrants into Britain: the same individual might arrange transit, accommodation and work. Some of the new gangmasters were linked to organised crime. And new versions of old exploitation developed, encouraged by the relentless pressure to cut food production costs.
The new licensing authorities are attempting to prevent exploitation. But the poverty of some countries in relation to a place like Britain will, concludes Philip Conford, sustain such a system. Once it was Irish migrants; now it might be Latvians or Chinese. But what continues is “the flow of migrant agricultural labour and the abuse-prone gangs that historically have always accompanied it”.
Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history
This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org