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Licensing loopholes allow agencies to suggest rogue landlords

Tom Wall04/05/2016 - 14:13

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Hyperion House was raided last year
Hyperion House was raided last year

Employment agencies should take more responsibility for where migrant workers are living, the CIEH has urged.   

A special multimedia investigation by EHN - published jointly with The Guardian - has found that one of the UK’s biggest employment agencies Staffline Group featured an overcrowded and dangerous showroom, Hyperion House, on a list of accommodation for migrant workers.

The landlord Russell Brown was fined £21,100 in January after the building in Sealand, Flintshire, was raided in the biggest operation of its kind in Wales.

Wrexham Magistrates Court heard the showroom, which lacked residential planning permission, was ‘wholly inadequate’ and at ‘imminent risk of fire’ posing a ‘real risk to life’.

Bob Mayho, CIEH principal policy officer, said the case revealed potential loopholes in the regulatory regime for gangmasters.

‘This is an important case and one that raises fundamental concerns about possible gaps in the regulatory framework. The CIEH calls upon the government to look at the statutory responsibilities of the agencies involved in the licensing regime to ensure that the welfare of migrant workers, in terms of workplace safety, accommodation and general health and wellbeing are protected,’ he said.

Enter the special mutlimedia investigation here: 

 Jim Coy, the Welsh Government’s anti-slavery co-ordinator for North Wales, said Staffline did not check the landlords on the list it was giving to migrants.

‘Hyperion House was one of their preferred accommodation venues of a list of ten,’ he said. ‘Now the other nine addresses did exist but when I went to check them physically myself they had never heard of that company. There had never been any contact with that company and certainly no arrangement to house migrant workers.’

Currently agencies like Staffline supplying workers to sectors such as food processing and agriculture must obtain licences from the Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA). These licenses require companies to meet tough standards covering health and safety, pay, accommodation and working conditions.

However, the agencies only need to ensure workers’ housing is safe if it is linked to their jobs. This means Staffline was not under any legal obligation to check Hyperion House met minimum standards. 

Mr Coy is concerned that employment agencies are exploiting this loophole in the licensing regime.

‘There is a gap in the current legislation which allows people to offer employment and do nothing about accommodation. Surely if people are coming across the world to work here, we must pay due diligence to where they are going to live and the standards of living they are going to receive.’

Staffline Group - which supplies up to 45,000 temporary workers each day to thousands of farms, food processers, warehouses, and care homes across the UK – told EHN that Hyperion House was removed from the list that was given to migrant workers as soon as it was alerted to the problems on the site.

The group now audits potential landlords and visits a proportion of properties before making recommendations to migrant workers.

It stressed it did not directly or indirectly place workers in accommodation.

‘With regards to accommodation, we do not place workers in accommodation either directly or effectively in line with the governing regulations. However, we do try to help the workers as much as we can within these constraints and, having consulted the guidance offered by Gangmasters Licensing Authority's Brief 38, we therefore collate a list of potential accommodation for workers to refer to when they are finding and selecting their own accommodation,’ it said in a statement.

Environmental health officers (EHOs) from Flintshire County Council found 107 migrant workers living in 32 rooms, sharing three kitchens, six toilets and six showers when the building was raided March 2015.

Jo Seymour, the Flintshire EHO who led the raid said she was forced to close the building because it was so dangerous.

‘The electrics were close to overloading. It was within a week of catching fire and the alarm system wasn’t operational.’

She estimated Brown, who was charging the Hyperion House tenants £55 each per week, could have made £70,620 in rent during the peak picking season from January to March.

Ms Seymore said she worried she might face another case like Hyperion House unless action is taken.

‘If a worker is brought into to this country someone needs to take responsibility for where they are going to live and that those properties are up to standard. Until that happens Hyperion House might occur again.’

Mr Brown has since claimed he warned Staffline but he feared they would ‘pull the plug on him’ if he didn’t take more migrants. This is denied by Staffline.

‘That last four weeks, they were coming in tens and twenties. It was only 35 in the building a few weeks before. They were coming and coming. I says “you can’t bloody come”. I says “what you doing here”.’

Paul Broadbent, the head of the Gangmaster Licensing Authority, which was established after 21 Chinese cockle pickers drowned off Morecombe Bay in 2004, is aware of the loophole.

‘I wrote to the local authority shortly after this issue was uncovered by the council and I agreed it is an area where workers can be exploited,’ he says. ‘However, the GLA is limited as to what it can do under current UK law and regulations unless the workers’ accommodation is being provided directly by one of the agencies we license.’

The government’s independent anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, has also been in touch with Flintshire County Council about the case. His office said he considered the points raised by the council to be ‘extremely valid’ and agreed that ‘opportunities for prevention must be better explored’.

Jane Bladon, Staffline’s head of compliance, said Hyperion House was on the list because workers recommended it to Staffline.

‘Back in that time there were no such checks done on any of the people that go on our disclaimers. So it was by word of mouth or reputation. Somebody would tell us that was okay to live at, that the standards were what we looking for and it was affordable,’ she said.

Jimmy Davies, Staffline’s director of agriculture, said Staffline staff had not visited Hyperion House.

‘I never went there,’ he said. ‘I’m not aware of anybody attending or seeing it.’

Ms Bladon rejected any suggestion Staffline sent workers to Hyperion House after it was full.

‘We don’t send workers,’ she said. ‘They would have chosen Hyperion. It was definitely not the only one on the disclaimer. There has to be as many as possible so workers can freely choose. If they choose Hyperion House because they already had friends there, we can’t accept any responsibility for that.’

This year Staffline has introduced a new system for helping migrant find accommodation to ensure they are not dealing with ‘disreputable companies’.

‘We are going to meet the accommodation provider, which is something we have never done before and make sure we are going to be happy with what they are supplying to workers. We are going to audit a sample of their accommodation. If they aren’t up to scratch then we aren’t going to put them on the disclaimer,’ said Ms Bladon. ‘So we going a little bit further than we ever did before.’

The Home Office said councils already had powers to tackle rogue landlords and insisted that there were no gaps in the gangmaster licensing regime.

‘This is not a loophole - existing legislation and housing standards offer strong protection to those who rent from private landlords,’ said a spokesperson. ‘We are determined to crack down on rogue landlords and the housing bill will introduce banning orders, fines and a database for the worst offenders.’

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