Driving change in and through mission-critical organisations with Elysia McCaffrey

Interview   –   11 December 2023

Since 2021, Elysia McCaffrey has been the CEO of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority. Before then she was Director at the Government Equality’s Office with a specific focus on gender issues. We spoke with her about driving changes both in industry, and within the organisations that act as orchestrators of change.

How has your time at GLAA been so far?

It’s gone so quickly, which I think is always a sign that you're having a good time. It's been really challenging. There's been a huge amount of work to do. But I think the challenge has been really good and there's a really passionate team at GLAA which makes it really enjoyable.


What are the main challenges that that the organisation is facing and how are you navigating those.

So, one of the most significant challenges for us at the moment is how we regulate businesses. For a little bit of context, we were set up in 2005 after the Cockle Pickers Disaster, where 23 Chinese cockle pickers lost their life because they'd been trafficked to the UK, subjected to horrible conditions, and then drowned while they were working. So, our job is to make sure that employers have licences to supply workers into our sectors and can demonstrate they've got good standards of employment for people. We regulate them, we make sure they're working effectively and so on. And the biggest challenge since I came into post is how we make sure we've got the most effective regulation model possible. One of the challenges we had is that we put processes in place and then hadn't updated them over time or modernised our working practices. So, over the last 18 months, I've been running a big programme of continuous improvement, which has completely changed the way that we regulate, so that we're managing risk in the right place, we're offering a better service to the people that we're here to support and that we're protecting workers better.  That has included significant process redesign, restructuring of the teams, a completely different way of working. We're trialling things at the moment and running a model office to test some of the theories, but it's going really well and we are getting some amazing results.

That leads to a broader question around regulation more generally. We work with a lot of Regulators and sometimes candidates don't quite know where the Regulators sit in industry. It seems like there's this real case for Regulators themselves to be a step ahead in terms of having the most modern processes. So, what sort of things do you think Regulators should be doing to ensure that they stay really current and therefore are prepared for issues as they appear?

I think there's a desire across government and ALBs to reduce “burden on business”. It's a phrase that you hear a lot and is absolutely right because we need businesses to be working properly. Whatever sector you're operating in, if you're regulating schools or qualifications or businesses or working in the way that we do, you've got to be focused on doing it in the most agile and appropriately light touch way possible. There's a risk because there's so much regulation and there's so many things that businesses have to comply with that they can end up becoming a bit bogged down. And you don't want to see a position where regulation is removed completely because it has a really good purpose. For example, I know that workers are safer because of the way that we regulate and I know that we're working to keep standards as high, as they should be. All of those things are really important because they make the UK a place where people want to come and work, and we need that for our economy.  So, getting that balance right so you're not putting that burden on business, but you're still giving the benefits can be really difficult.

And internally, how do you foster a positive culture to support this? I know you really strive to drive diversity and inclusion but talk to me about that within GLAA.

So our culture has been really interesting and we've been on a bit of a journey around this. I have a very strong vision around having a workplace people really want to come to.  I know that's what leaders say, but I really mean it. I think we spend more time at work with our colleagues than with the people that we love. So, it's got to be a good workplace and I think diversity is really key to that. When I came into post, we were not a diverse organisation at all.  I think we'd fallen into some of the traps of recruiting in our own image and being kind of “comfortable” with the people that we're bringing in, but not necessarily thinking about its overall impact on the culture. The thing that's lovely about GLAA is there's such a passion for doing the right thing, for really helping workers, and supporting the most vulnerable people. But the difficulty is, if you end up with quite a homogeneous workplace, you're missing a trick on certain things. You can't assume to see the world through every person's lens. And so, we've been doing quite a lot of work about how we recruit to make sure we can understand the world through other people's lenses and to make sure that if you are in a minority group that you're not the only person sitting in a room looking or feeling different to other people. We’ve done quite a lot. We've got more to do and I think we're starting to feel the benefit of that already in terms of how people feel a connection to the organisation, especially since people are increasingly coming back into the office after Covid.

Did you feel that as a result of Covid there was a shift in working patterns or warning signs that you might have to be looking for in industry?

I'm not sure that Covid had a really significant effect because most of the people that we work with are working outside. You can't gather shellfish in your living room! So that wasn't a massive influence for us. But actually the shift for us has been as we've exited the European Union. We’re now seeing workers come from different countries and that's changing how we regulate because we've got people coming from further afield and the kind of practices of exploitation we see are different. So we're having to learn to work in a different way. For example, it's illegal in the UK to charge people work finding fees, but in other countries such as Nepal, they are sometimes charging  people as much as £10,000 to get them a job in the UK. So, what we find in is people coming to the UK with a huge amount of debt that they shouldn't have and then having to work that debt off so it's things like that that are changing the ways that workers are exploited. We have to get ahead of those things all the time, including working out how to work with labour providers who are based in other countries rather than locally, which adds new layers of challenge.

And how have you navigated that change from a language and cultural perspective?

Well, what we're doing is a program that we're calling Cultural Competence and bringing in external speakers to talk to our officers to help them understand the challenges that different communities face. We also work really closely with the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office to understand how we might change the way that we work with people. The important thing for us when we go out to a site to meet workers who've come from overseas is building trust so they can speak to our officers and share instances of exploitation. Understanding the cultural dynamics at play is really important.


Through all this, have you drawn anything on how organisations can build trust really well internally as well as externally?

I've been on a few jobs with our teams when they're out in the field and it's really interesting to see instances where our officers have built relationships with businesses or accommodation. Those things take time and they're really important. Quite often, one of the control mechanisms used over people who are being exploited is feeding the fear of authority and telling them they'll be in trouble if they speak up. For example, people come from India into the UK care sector on student visas where they’re legally allowed to work for 20 hours a week. But sometimes people are being forced to work really long hours and then told they'll be liable for working longer than the 20 hours. So we're often starting from a deficit position where people think that they might be in trouble so they're naturally scared. We have to work really hard on building those relationships and building trust and building community relationships so that people know that we exist and that they can come to us for help and that we genuinely will help them. A year or so ago, we jointly recruited a Victim Navigator, between us and an organisation called Justice and Care, to help victims to understand the process on an individual level, and to understand their unique needs. One of the really sad things we see and some of the worst cases of exploitation is that it can be people who already have health difficulties or mental health problems or special educational needs who are much more vulnerable. They need additional help and support and that Victim Navigator program that we've had in place has really helped make access to justice easier for people with some really good outcomes.


And moving back to your time at the Government Equality's Office, tell us about your tenure there, that was such a wonderful job.

It was!  I'm really passionate about equality and about understanding the challenges that protected characteristic groups face and how you overcome them and so that role holds some of the things I'm most proud of working on. For example, I implemented the gender pay gap regulations when I was there, which felt like a real game changer at the time. The thing that I found so interesting was that we did a lot of work on what was causing the gender pay gap and how girls grew up being told something different from what boys are told, as well as what happens to women in the workplace when they want to have children or if an employer assumes they might want to have children and they get held back regardless. I feel like we did some really good work including joint work with other departments for things like shared parental leave or access to flexible working. Normalising all of these policies was really powerful. We also did some really good work on LGBT rights and moving things forward to make sure that opportunities exist for people to be treated fairly and supported in the right way. I think I love the job that I do now at GLAA because I know we're actively helping people, and in that job I had the opportunity to do things I never dreamed I would do, like go to the UN and speak on gender equality issues. My colleagues and I delivered a seminar at Harvard University on helping women into politics and it was all these really tangible things that could advance equality that was just such a passion for me.


Everyday we hear comments that are misogynistic without necessarily meaning to be. At what stage in people's lives do you work from changing attitudes  -  schools or is it the workplace or elsewhere?

So I don't know what they're working on now because I've been out for a while, but certainly when I was there we thought about all stages. I remember we had this wonderful woman come in to talk to us about neuroplasticity in the brain and some research that she'd done on newborn babies and how basically boys and girls brains are the same - everything that happens afterwards is that we push them into gendered roles. Therefore, one of the things I loved when I was at GEO is that we weren't just looking at what the workplace looks like, but at the journey to that including everyday misogyny and everyday sexism. One of the things that I found really interesting is gendered feedback. So in the civil service, at senior level, there is 360° mandatory feedback and it's all done in a system. And there was some research done by a brilliant analyst that looked at the feedback given to men and to women. The men were given really tangible and actionable feedback, such as, “if you do this, you will be better”, often focused around being a better leader. Whereas there was a tendency to give women feedback that was less actionable. That is built up over time - boys get proper feedback on the quality of their schoolwork, girls get complimented on how neat their handwriting is and for being good and for being quiet in class whilst boys are expected to be a bit loud and challenging. I think what I really loved from being at GEO was the huge complexity of the issues at hand but being able to look at resetting the balance through small but measured actions.

How did you publicise the work you were doing and get GEO’s work known to the public?


Well, when we were bringing in gender pay gap legislation, it was just off the back of the #METOO situation when gender equality was really in the forefront of the public's mind. Then as gender pay gaps were being reported, the kind of horror of the situation was setting in. When the reports on the gender pay gap were being published on the government website, we were getting millions of hits and then the press really kind of grabbed hold of it and started publicising it for us. You know, we were lucky that it really kind of captured the public imagination at that time, because I think in the year that we introduced gender pay gap reporting, it was the biggest news story, second to Harry and Meghan's wedding! But I think there was a period of time where there was a real kind of enthusiasm and curiosity for gender issues and it felt like the crest of a wave around gender equality in that year, which I feel has quietened down a bit now. But I think there's still a level of public consciousness and a kind of desire to keep moving things forward.


You obviously did a lot of work on gender issues during your tenure, but tell me about working on LGBTQ+ issues that GEO was trying to tackle.

So it was really interesting because we didn't have a good evidence base of the situation for people in the UK. We ran a survey hoping to get about 10,000 responses on the experiences of LGBTQ+ people in the UK and we ended up with 110,000 responses which at that time was the biggest data set of its kind. It highlighted a number of things that were quite worrying. One of the things that stuck in my mind is I think 2/3 of same sex couples didn't feel safe to hold hands with their partner in public and that is massive. You know, I can walk down the street and hold hands with my husband and never once have to think about whether I might get verbal abuse or physical abuse for that. Also there was a higher than expected level of detail about conversion therapy. I think I had assumed wrongly that conversion therapy is something that happens in other countries or you know, it's a problem of the past. But there was a large number of people saying, “no, you know, I’ve seen churches trying to “pray the gay away” or medical and psychological interventions happening”, and that was an eye opener and I know that the team is still doing work on that. At the time, one of the big wins was that the Department of Health appointed a health advisor for LGBT issues because the experience that people were having while trying to access medical care was really worrying, particularly for transgender people who might go along with tonsillitis and get asked wildly inappropriate questions about transgender issues. Tonsils are tonsils – but people were reporting quite intrusive experience or assumptions being made about them because of their sexuality. So there was a good action plan put in place and good progress made on that but I think there's still absolutely loads to do.


How have the organisations you’ve worked with made themselves heard in different sectors and industries? How do you tell an organisation that they need to do more and how can you tell if they're listening or not?


In both GEO and GLAA we did lots of really proactive work with NGOs and with community groups and with workplaces because you spend a lot of time at work. We do a lot of round table events to maximise our reach and to get people working as advocates for change. A lot of it is about education and giving people the tools they need to make a difference. When, I was at GEO, we did this fantastic programme of work with the behavioural insights team looking at nudge theory and the things that you can do to make a difference. I would love to do something like that at GLAA although we don't have the budget for it at the moment and all departments are being squeezed, but I think the opportunity to ask some questions about what will really make a difference for labour exploitation could be amazing. We’ve done some really good work called “spot the signs” to help people to look for where worker exploitation might exist and where people have started to raise the alarm increasingly is in the care setting (although this happens in other places too), saying “I've seen my colleague taking food out of the bin” or “they don't bring food to work with them” and “they look quite dishevelled” - things that show that people actually aren't coping or potentially are not being paid or looked after in the way that they should be.


Is there a case for trying to change attitudes that “no issue is too small” and make people really aware of issues?


Change is hard for anyone, you know. So changing workplaces so that they have gender equality and racial equality and LGBT equality and disability equality can be really hard because when people are up against it and they're stressed and they're pressured, they go into the default mode and diversity then risks becoming a “nice to have” and an “add on”. I think the same kind of thinking applies at GLAA where, my team is saying “you've got to spot the signs, you've got to not be part of the problem”.  On a human level, anyone you talk to would go, “yeah, I don't want to be part of the problem with exploitation”, but we'll still go, “oh, that's a bargain to get my car washed there”. You know, happy to pay a fiver to get the car washed by 10 guys who are wearing flip flops and not think about whether they’re being paid properly and if they’re there on their own free will…… Nobody wants to actively be part of the problem, but the reality is we've got a cost of living crisis, people are just trying to survive and get through. When we buy cheaply made products, we're feeding the machine, we're feeding the industry. But it's hard. People haven’t got a choice, or don't have a huge choice and often it’s easier to go to cheap clothing providers and not think about who's making those clothes. That's why I think industry has a role as well. I think there's a lot to be said for consumer choice and how consumers make decisions but quite often the reality of day-to-day life makes it very hard for them to prioritise anything but their own immediate needs. You can't blame them for that.

And do you think that the cost of living crisis in the UK has impacted the work you’re seeing at GLA? Is there a wider issue of exploitation appearing in in the UK?

I'm not necessarily sure that the issue is growing, but I think we have to be more creative about solutions. I have always talked about consumers having a role in changing demand, and I believe that. But I'm overlaying that now with the cost-of-living crisis. You know, we're coming up to Christmas but people just need to survive and just need to feed their families. When they introduced the Red Tractor assurance on meat, I saw people I know changing the way that they buy meat, thinking, “I don't want an animal that's been abused. I want to know that they've been OK”, and that did, I think, drive changes in consumer behaviour.  I think there's got to be an equivalent for the kind of goods and services that we buy where there's an exploitation of people. But I do think that it's becoming increasingly hard to expect the consumers to think about those. So I think that's where organisations such as GLAA have such an important role, in spreading these messages and being a vital body for change but also a neutral voice that understands the complexity of the issues.



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