Non-discrimination and migrant workers

Improving controls on migrant labour providers
Marks and Spencer (M&S)
Over 885 stores in 40 territories, including Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe
Publicly listed
No. of employees:
Over 75,000


M&S has a significant UK presence and an expanding international business. It has around 2,000 suppliers globally. It is part of the Temporary Labour Working Group (TLWG), an alliance of companies (including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose), trade groups, growers, suppliers, labour providers and unions set up in 2002 amidst concern over major labour rights violations in UK food production.

Further information:

Dilemma: Improving controls on migrant labour providers

Following a 2004 incident in Morecambe Bay, UK, where 23 Chinese migrant cockle pickers died from drowning whilst working at night, M&S and the TLWG highlighted the exploitation of temporary workers in the UK agricultural and food processing sector by gangmasters (temporary labour providers). Key problems identified by the TLWG include:

  • Lack of effective controls on labour providers
  • Limited ability of labour users to identify sub-standard employers
  • Vulnerability of migrant workers due to a lack of awareness of their labour rights or the English language
  • The knowing use of unscrupulous labour providers as a means to cut costs

Violations against migrants reported by the TLWG include:

  • Coercion and violence by gangmasters
  • Health and safety malpractice resulting in fatal accidents
  • Excessive working hours and the payment of sub-minimum wages
  • Sub-standard living conditions

Good practice: Implementing a licensing and registration system

As part of the TLWG, M&S worked with the UK government, industry and trade unions to develop the UK Code of Practice for Labour Providers in preparation for the introduction of a government-run gangmaster licensing system in April 2006. The Code of Practice is a voluntary measure intended to provide best practice guidance to labour providers and labour users, prior to the implementation of impending legislation. The Code sets a benchmark for independent assessment of employment practices, forming the basis of a robust auditing mechanism to investigate workers” real conditions of employment and demonstrate compliance. This Code of Practice includes recommendations on:

  • Basic legal requirements, including payment of taxes and sub-contracting
  • Employing workers, including free choice of employment and UK workers’ rights
  • Conditions of employment, including employment contracts and health and safety issues
  • Treatment of workers, including access to trade unions, regularity of employment, minimum wages, working hours and discrimination

Results: Legal enactment of the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act

By January 2006, 818 labour providers had registered on the Temporary Labour Working Group website. This was 75% of the total number of labour providers in the UK as estimated by the Gangmaster (Licensing) Authority. A total of 396 of these had booked audits or consultancy and audit packages, and the results of 234 audits had been received and analysed.

Partly as a result of the TLWG’s lobbying activities, a Bill was enacted by the UK parliament in July 2004 as the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act. This came into force in 2006. All temporary labour providers must now have a licence to operate in the UK. The Gangmasters Licencing Authority - the body set up to safeguard the welfare and interests of workers and ensure that labour providers operate within the law - has licensed over 1,219 labour providers as of May 2009. Some 85 licenses have been revoked and one person has been prosecuted for operating without a licence - with further prosecutions expected.