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Colborn’s Corner: Who cares?


Quentin Colborn
As the tragic drowning of 21 cockle pickers at Morecambe bay is played out in a court room Quentin Colborn looks at the role of gangmasters within the UK and consider what can be done to ensure tragedies like this never occur again.

There will be few people working in HR who have much of a grasp of the concept of gangmasters and their role in the management of people.

Normally they will only be heard of in somewhat derogatory terms. From what I understand they operate groups of transient workers typically within the agricultural sector. In these days of ever increasing labour mobility, partially fuelled by the expansion of the EU eastwards, it is inevitable that migrant workers will be attracted to the low skill sectors of the economy where language may not be a barrier.

So should this worry us as HR people? I imagine few who read this column have much exposure to these working arrangements and I don’t speak from any great knowledge, but I do wonder how much ‘HR’ practice follows that we would recognise in mainstream business. I place HR in apostrophes, as employing someone has to be the role of HR, even if it doesn’t follow the professionalism many of us strive to adopt.

It is a sad state of affairs when a shellfish collecting activity turns tragedy because of poor management or a container lorry in Dover transporting willing workers ends up killing them, as happened a few years ago. So what is the answer? More regulation? Better regulation?

On one hand, regulation is needed to bring in minimum standards and that must be right and proper, on the other hand when regulations are proposed whereby employers need to check the strength of the sun something has gone wrong.

Fortunately in the latter situation, good sense has prevailed and that proposal has been withdrawn. It does remind me of the obligation of our cricket umpires to check the light level. Under the withdrawn proposals, I would assume umpires would have been under orders to take off players if the suns rays got too much!

How do we ensure that on the one hand we don’t overburden businesses with too many rules and regulations, yet on the other hand prevent tragedies like we have seen? Perhaps the answer is to build a society where we all take an interest in employment matters.

Consumers have a role to play. We now expect to know where for example our meat has come from, so why don’t we start to question how employees are treated? More consumers are looking at ethical labels including ‘Fairtrade’ and these have had a marked impact on consumer behaviour. Equally, campaigners have had an impact on the employment conditions of people in South East Asia producing goods for Western consumption. Why shouldn’t this happen here too?

Company annual reports now have to carry basic information about how the business recognises people issues (information that is far too scant to my mind) so why not extend this to co-packaging with the product?

I appreciate there are many, very practical difficulties with this idea, however if we really want attitudes to change perhaps we have to be prepared for the expense and hassle of taking actions like these.

What do you think? Is this taking social engineering too far or is this simply an extension of ethical consumer choice? Would publicity have any impact on the behaviour on the fringes of mainstream employment?

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant who supports organisations with a wide range of HR activities. For an informal discussion of how he can help you T: 01376 571360 or e-mail him at [email protected]

Colborn’s Corner: series articles

One Response

  1. More legislation…maybe not
    This comment is not much to do with the topic of your article, but the reference to maybe more regulation caused me to ask whether or not you have a similar situation in the UK that we have in New Zealand. In many instances where there is a call for more or better regulation, we oftentimes find that the current regulations are not being used to their maximum effect, or sometimes not being used at all. We have now a culture of regulation by regulation, fuelled by armies of beaurocrats who make a very good living from creating and implementing new legislation. Have you managaed to curb this qeal, or did you not have to contend with it anyhow. If you in the UK managed to fix the problem, how did you go about it? Unfortunately our busniness community is so involved in keeping pace with all the new legislation, as well as trying to run a business, they do not have the time nor the unclination to take these folk on.

    Don Rhodes

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