Just before Christmas, the Construction Confederation wrote an article in this slot arguing against the regulation of gangmasters. Here, Alan Ritchie puts the unions’ case

Iam often mildly annoyed by the opinions of construction bosses but Stephen Ratcliffe’s article in Building on 14 December, arguing against gangmaster legislation, left me dumbstruck. Apart from anything else, he has chosen to airbrush from history the fact that last year, one of his senior officials appeared on BBC radio and endorsed our proposals.

If the Construction Confederation does not want the Gangmasters Act extended to construction, it should say it prefers a deregulated system in which profits are increased through the exploitation of workers.

Contrary to Ratcliffe’s assertion, there are at least 350,000 migrants in our industry. This figure is derived from the Institute of Public Policy Research and is given weight by the Polish government, which estimates that 250,000 skilled workers have left its country to work abroad since EU expansion. Add unskilled Polish workers, and those from other EU countries and the 350,000 figures could be too low.

Ratcliffe says just 3% of the industry is employed through agencies/gangmasters. This is dubious. In 2005 ConstructionSkills estimated that 168,000 workers, or 7% of the industry, were employed through them. Since the passing of the Gangmasters Licensing Act, gangmasters unable to get a licence in agriculture, food processing and shellfish collection have moved into unregulated sectors, principally construction.

To suggest, as Ratcliffe does, that skilled migrant workers, are not at risk of exploitation because “they know their own worth” is absurd. Ucatt has been compiling case studies of workers exploited by gangmasters. In many cases they were lured to Britain with promises of pay rates of £10-12 an hour. On arrival, and at their most vulnerable, they were offered less. Skilled craft workers earn £7.50-8 and labourers, £6.

The level of vulnerability and coercion that workers are subjected to should not be underplayed; my officials have reported “a pervading sense of fear” among ganged workers, and many have been told they will be sacked and deported if they join a union.

I am sure if Ratcliffe introduced hot bedding among his own staff, they would be somewhat dismayed

Most of the abuse we have exposed has been among second or third tier subcontractors on sites run by large contractors, some of which are in Ratcliffe’s confederation. In one case, we found that the workforce was receiving below the minimum wage on a major PFI hospital site. In that case, and in most others we have uncovered, the contractor has either removed the abusive gangmaster or forced them to stop exploiting their workforce.

Other excessive charges involve transport costs, and illegal charges for protective equipment, CSCS cards and the Home Office registration scheme. We have recently unearthed examples of ganged workers charged 4% of their wages for payroll services.

Pay is not the only means of exploitation. Many of the workers are forced into “hot bedding” arrangements, whereby they share a bed in shifts, paying the gangmaster an excessive amount for the privilege. I am sure if Ratcliffe introduced hot bedding among his own staff, they would be somewhat dismayed.

One thing is essential: we must destroy the myth that the CDM regulations protect migrant workers. CDM is only concerned with health and safety; it does not prevent workers being financially exploited or coerced.

John Hutton and Stephen Ratcliffe are wrong in their opposition to extending the Gangmasters Act. Every day thousands of construction workers are being abused and there is no law to prevent it. The decent companies in our industry should also welcome legislation. It will only drive out the rogues, and allow them to flourish.