Farmers face tougher migrant laws

RICHARD BALLS Farmers who unwittingly use illegal migrant workers could have their assets seized or face being struck off as company directors under tough new laws being drawn up by ministers.

RICHARD BALLS

Farmers who unwittingly use illegal migrant workers could have their assets seized or

face being struck off as company directors under tough new laws being drawn up by ministers.

Although unscrupulous gangmasters in the region have been prosecuted and, in some cases, jailed for supplying immigrants with false papers, so far farms and other companies who used them have been spared punishment.

But facing mounting political pressure to take a tough line on illegal immigrants, home secretary John Reid is now considering proposals under which any business caught employing illegal immigrants could have its profits seized - whether or not they knew the workers were in Britain illegally.

The rules would also apply if illegal workers were employed by sub-contractors used by the farming industry.

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A “two strikes and you're out” rule would also see the board of any company potentially dismissed if two or more breaches of the law were discovered.

Last night farmers' leaders described the proposals as a warning to the industry - and urged farmers to be more careful than ever in ensuring that the foreign labourers used on their land had legitimate papers.

“The depth of the illegal immigrant problem is such an unknown,” George Harcourt, chairman of the Norfolk branch of the National Farmers' Union, said.

“Most farmers if they are sensible employ people direct, but there are gangmasters out there who have illegal people on their books. This would be tough and it is a case of being very careful.

“I would be surprised if many farmers are knowingly employing people they don't know much about. They are pretty careful about who they employ and want to know if they have the right papers.

“The trouble will arise where a gangmaster has rung and said, 'I want some workers for six or eight weeks' and they turn up and are supplied.”

But the plans are said to have caused concern at the Department of Trade and Industry that the powers are too draconian. Whitehall officials are still grappling with the issue of how far prosecutors would have to go to establish whether companies knowingly employed illegal immigrants who might have fake documents.

Immigration officers and police have swooped on Norfolk farms in recent years in operations aimed at detaining illegal workers. Eight illegal workers from Brazil found working for Bernard Matthews were deported in December 2004 following raids across the county over a three-week period.

It came only months after nine Brazilian workers working at its factory in Lenwade were arrested and deported.

Twenty-four men and women from Brazil, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Uzbekistan were held in a joint immigration and police operation at Beeston. Some workers fled when they saw the team arrive and hid in surrounding buildings, before they were rounded up.

Two Norfolk businessmen were jailed in 2004 for supplying hundreds of illegal migrant workers to pick fruit at farms across the Kent region in a case which highlighted the murky world of gangmasters and the exploitation of immigrant workers.

Victor Cox, then 57, of Hockwold, near Thetford, and his son Jayson, then 35, of Kirby Bedon, near Norwich, were each sentenced to seven years for the fraudulent operation which police estimate netted them millions of pounds.