Banana Link is saddened by the recent passing of our one time trustee, trade unionist and peace activist, Don Pollard. To mark his passing we reproduce below his obituary, published in The Guardian:
The trade unionist and peace activist Don Pollard, who has died aged 80, was one of the driving forces behind the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004, legislation brought in by the British government to curb the exploitation of agricultural and food workers in the UK.
It took the Morecambe Bay tragedy to bring his and fellow union organisers’ efforts to fruition. In 2004, 23 Chinese workers drowned after their gangmasters sent them cockle-picking in lethal tides. Some of the victims had been employed previously on farms in East Anglia, where Pollard had uncovered appalling conditions. His work had laid the ground for a coalition of unions, business, and MPs to push through the Labour MP Jim Sheridan’s private member’s bill introducing licensing to the gangmaster sector.
A lifetime of campaigning for labour rights began when Pollard and his wife, the celebrated British gardening writer Joy Larkcom, set up an experimental market garden in Suffolk in 1978. A committed socialist and active Labour party member, he joined the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, later part of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, and set about recruiting impoverished farm workers.
Going from farm to farm to collect union dues, he was appalled by the conditions he saw, and was witness to sweeping changes in agricultural work in the late 1980s and 90s. Direct employment on farms was being cut drastically, thanks to mechanisation and increasingly casualised working, and farmers were lobbying to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board, which set a legal floor on conditions in the sector. As the work became less attractive to local people, more and more workers were recruited from abroad.
Pollard was among the first, from the late 80s onwards, to record exploitation of migrants by gangmasters in subcontracting chains that supplied the leading supermarkets. Over the next decade and a half, he gathered evidence of the widespread abuse of workers. He produced pivotal reports on conditions in East Anglia, Sussex and the Vale of Evesham, repeatedly exposing what would now be called modern slavery. These provided ammunition both for the union’s long-running campaign to regulate labour providers and for many newspaper investigations.
Appearing with typical self-deprecation before the environment, food and rural affairs select committee in 2003 as a gangmaster expert – “whatever that means,” he said – he deployed his formidable analytical skills to get to the heart of the matter, warning MPs that the illegal use of migrants was not only an employment problem but a serious social issue likely to have profound political consequences.
Don Pollard and his wife, Joy Larkcom, with their children Brendan and Kirsten
He continued fighting the deregulatory tide from his positions on the statutory Suffolk agricultural wages committee and on the government advisory committee on tied housing. Pollard was also an elected member of the TGWU’s Suffolk trade group committee and then the national agricultural trade group committee, of which he later became chair.
Pollard was born in Detroit, the fourth of five children of the founder-manager of a dairy co-operative, Patrick Pollard, and his wife, Mary (nee Smith). A Jesuit education, complete with caning, gave him a pugnacious anti-authoritarian streak, tempered by ai sceptical wit and defiant sense of mischief. He graduated in history from University College Detroit, taught in high schools for three years and then travelled for a year around Europe on a shoestring, landing in Britain in 1964.
Marrying in 1967, Pollard and Larkcom moved to Montrose Farm, near Hepworth, Suffolk. Pollard returned to teaching, in Bury St Edmunds and Brandon, while Larkcom gardened and wrote. In 1976 they began a year-long “grand vegetable tour of Europe” in a camper van, so that Larkcom could collect material while Pollard home-schooled their two young children en route. The journey was source for a series of books by Larkcom about unusual gardening techniques and vegetables, especially salads, that transformed eating in this country and led to the couple’s time as market gardeners near Bury St Edmunds.
The couple were committed members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, joining peace protests in the 80s against the deployment of US missiles at several of the East Anglian airbases. Pollard was repeatedly arrested, and in 1986 was charged with obstruction for his part in peaceful protests at RAF Lakenheath against US bombing of Libya from that base. He conducted his own defence, arguing that the police were acting beyond their powers, and succeeded in forcing his case as far as the high court. When he was eventually found guilty and fined, the judge congratulated him, saying he should have taken up the law.
Pollard went on to use his self-taught legal skills in 1990 to fight the poll tax, acting as a McKenzie friend – a formal assistant in court – to other activists prosecuted for refusing to pay. Their aim was make the tax unenforceable by clogging up the courts; in this they succeeded, contributing to pressure to abolish it. Pollard believed that progress towards a fairer world would come not only from influence in the corridors of power but from the everyday participation of active citizens.
An instinctive internationalist, he was also trustee of Banana Link, a not-for-profit co-operative based in Norwich, which campaigns to end violations of labour rights and environmental degradation on banana and pineapple plantations in developing countries. He used visits to Central America to pressure British businesses over conditions in their supply chains.
In 2002 he and Larkcom retired to Ireland to create a new model garden on a windswept headland in County Cork. In between composting, hedging and digging potatoes Don found time to pursue another passion, working as a volunteer with his local branch of Amnesty International.
Pollard is survived by Joy Larkcom, their son, Brendan, daughter, Kirsten, and five grandchildren.