February 21, 2013 3:35 pm

An eye for the pick of the crop

Fred Bassett, gangmaster at his office in Wisbech.©Si Barber

Culture champion: Fred Bassett says he only uses eastern European workers because locals do not want the jobs they do

It all comes down to attitude for Fred Bassett. The 57-year-old believes he can tell within a minute if someone has the right manner to qualify for work. The gangmaster – he prefers “labour provider”, because gangmaster “sounds like you’re standing over a gang with a whip in your hand” – recently saw off a man who was “too bolshie, too clever, done all the talking, wouldn’t listen”.

The third generation to do the job (his grandfather was also named Fred Bassett), he has honed this instinct over four decades: he has been in the profession – finding temporary pickers and packers for farmers and factories – since the age of 15. It was something he learnt from his father and grandfather. “Their feeling was, ‘as long as you want to learn, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never worked on the land before – you can do the job.’”

His biggest frustration has always been the struggle to find “quality people”. Inevitably, some with a bad attitude slip through the net if he is desperate for workers, particularly in June, the height of the strawberry season, when demand is high. Such seasonal work means he also feels immensely irritated having to turn good people down.

He waves his hand in the direction of a young Polish woman with long dyed jet-black hair approaching reception, pushing a pram and accompanied by an older man with a moustache. “She’s done some work for us. She’s asking about her dad, who’s an experienced welder . . . [We’re] quiet at the moment but they’ll come back three times a week, keep coming: ‘Any chance of work, Fred?’ ”

Everyone who works for him is eastern European. Wisbech, the market town in the fens of Cambridgeshire where his business is based, is dotted with Polish delicatessens and cafés: 13.6 per cent of the permanent population is eastern European, but locals believe that if you add those who travel in for seasonal work it swells to a third.

Mr Bassett’s first experience of hiring eastern Europeans came after the enlargement of the EU in 2004, when eight countries – the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia – acceded to the union. Mr Bassett was hired by a farmer to recruit 40 pickers to work in a rhubarb field; he turned up with only 24.

The farmer was furious, believing the eastern European workers, who had never seen a stick of rhubarb before, would not be able to get the work done. By 2pm the field was empty. “The farmer was impressed; I was surprised,” says Mr Bassett.

Labour rules

Polish migrant workers packing roses in a packhouse in Wisbech.

In the early 19th century, it became increasingly common for “gangmasters” to recruit “gangs” of female and child temporary workers for farmers unwilling to be responsible for full-time employees, which resulted in widespread abuses.

The 1867 Gangs act introduced regulations for the employment of women and children in agricultural gangs, stipulating, for example, that no child under eight was permitted to be employed.

In 1960, the licensing system was abolished, only to be reintroduced in 2004 following the deaths of Chinese cockle-pickers in northern England.

The gangmaster, dressed in a navy, padded jacket and who speaks with an east Anglian burr, has not hired a local English worker since. He says he never finds any willing to do such hard work for the minimum wage. “They aren’t taking English people’s jobs – they don’t want them,” he says.

Mr Bassett has a pragmatic approach to migrant labour and, despite reports about tensions when eastern Europeans came to the town, he says locals show no hostility towards them.

His grandfather set up shop in 1930, at the height of the Depression. Then, the jobs were primarily picking and planting potatoes, sugar beet and daffodils. Such was the desperation for work that Mr Bassett’s grandfather and, later, his father, would be able to cherry-pick the best from large numbers of would-be workers.

About half of Mr Bassett’s employees (predominantly Poles and Lithuanians) have made their homes in Wisbech. The other half are seasonal workers – some are students spending the summer holidays picking strawberries, others fly into Stansted airport after being notified of a contract.

Mechanisation has reduced the amount of work that was available in his grandfather’s time. “We’d have 40 people picking potatoes and planting. Now it’s all done by machine.”

Amid economic gloom, supermarkets’ squeeze on farmers to reduce their margins is putting pressure on Mr Bassett. Work is tight, especially as competitors are undercutting him. “You ask yourself a question: ‘How did they do it and I couldn’t?’ ”

He suspects some are paying their workers less than the minimum wage (currently set at £6.19 an hour), which is against the law. “There’s lots and lots of agencies out there. Most are very, very honest, very straightforward, very legal,” he says. “There’s one or two bad ones that cause the bad name.”

Seven years ago, Mr Bassett became the first to be licensed to supply workers after legislation was introduced in the wake of the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers who were trapped by rising tides in Morecambe bay. The Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 made it illegal to act as a gangmaster without a licence or to use the services of an unlicensed gangmaster.

“People think you get them to work hard, you don’t care about them  . . .  but there’s lots of things we do behind the scenes that has [no bearing] on profit whatsoever.”

He says the role is about much more than just finding pickers and packers. His job extends to helping organise a worker’s insurance, rent or bank account. For this reason, he has recruited Sylvia as his receptionist. A smiley woman in her 20s with long blonde hair and originally from Poland, she acts as a translator – she speaks some Russian, Latvian and Lithuanian as well as fluent English and Polish – and liaison between him and his employees. He hopes this will help him see off the threat from eastern European gangmasters operating locally who can co-ordinate their workforce more efficiently.

Aside from a brief youthful desire to work with racehorses, Mr Bassett was never tempted to leave the family profession. “I was brought up from day one knowing exactly what the work was. Every chance I got I went with my dad. [I loved] the fresh air out.”

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