Paul Whitehouse, chairman, Gangmasters Licensing Authority

Paul Whitehouse belongs to one of the newest and most dangerous gangs on the block. Dangerous, that is, if you happen to be one of the bad guys, flouting employment laws and exploiting workers from all points of the globe, from eastern Europe to Asia.

The chairman of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) has slugged out some of highest-profile turf wars in recent months. The latest of these was February's sting on nine licensed gangmasters found violating the rules that Whitehouse's gang must enforce. The lightning strike of vehicle stops, accommodation sweeps and interview probes reaped a grim harvest of both licensed and unlicensed gangmasters shuttling hundreds of underpaid workers from squalid digs to daffodil and vegetable fields in Cornwall.

For Whitehouse, this is as much a personal crusade as professional - he is a committed Christian. And 201 years after the abolition of slavery in Britain, exploitation is thriving, he insists.

"Operation Westport in Cornwall involved mainly Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian and Bulgarian workers and shows exploitation is alive and well in 2008," he says. "It needs to be stamped out; we must stop modern-day slavery."

The GLA, which was set up three years ago but gained enforcement powers only 15 months ago, has a lot to do. Estimates suggest there could be anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000 labour providers in the UK. The GLA has five cases trundling through the legal process.

"Pressure to cut corners and reduce costs combined with the lengthy tradition of not prosecuting wrongdoers has allowed us to fall into this depressing pattern," he explains. "But (the GLA's) increasingly public actions are starting to have a desired effect."

Publicity, of course, peaked with the death of more than 20 Chinese cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay in 2004. But high-profile swoops on big food industry names hover uncomfortably close to the home of growers and packers.

He insists production horticulture is no worse than other industries, but stops short of saying it is any better. He also points out most labour providers are good operators doing their best in a competitive market but need help from the GLA to squeeze out the cowboys.

Whitehouse aims to please: "I'm sure there are unlicensed gangmasters out there who haven't got round to sorting out their licences. But others are chancing their arm and the more they get to hear of us and our exploits, the more they will know we mean business."

This is tough talking from a man whose interests, according to Who's Who, are "IT, disputation and steam". Whitehouse is a career high flier, who came down from Cambridge in the 1960s and rose up the police ranks in a career spanning 34 years.

He has several outside interests, being employed by the GLA for just one and half days a week. These include Somerset-based Quaker school Sidcot, where he chairs the governors' board. He also runs a charity based in Nairobi and is secretary of the Dutch Barge Association.

Whitehouse's ship is tight and disciplined and if labour provision is hard to quantify, the numbers game stacks up perfectly in other areas. More than £2m in VAT payments gushed into the Government's coffers in the GLA's first year.

Nearly 300 licence applications since then will ensure that the VAT keeps rolling in. Elsewhere, it's hazy for the GLA - especially the future. A planned merger with the Health & Safety Executive could mar the association's record and an absurd irony hits home with Whitehouse.

"We are the only non-governmental group whose abolition was announced before we started and there's considerable doubt this is a sustainable move. It looks tidy but there are no cost or operational benefits, and I don't think it will happen before 2011."

This is bad news for the dodgy labour providers hoping to tough out the most sustained onslaught ever on their patch. The worst of the worst face a maximum 10-year prison sentence, so expect more arrests and licence revocations, suggests Whitehouse.

"Labour providers who continue to ignore the rights of workers and exploit the vulnerable should be in no doubt we will catch them through unannounced raids and other enforcement activities," he says. And in the true Quaker belief that all people are equal, he says they should be treated so: "Where we find abuses we will apply the maximum sanctions. We will not stand for worker exploitation. We will stamp it out."

CV

1963-1967: Works for Voluntary Service Overseas in Africa and studies economics at University of Cambridge.

1967-2001: Joins police and rises to chief constable after stints in Durham, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Sussex.

2001-2008: Retires from the police force and joins the Gangmasters Licensing Authority in late 2004.


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