Migrant labour – the unheard story

Hsiao-Hung Pai
2 February 2006

The poorest immigrant workers in Britain tend to make the news only when allegations of criminal activity or welfare fraud are involved. But a human tragedy that occurred on 5 February 2004 briefly highlighted the true reality of their daily lives, when twenty-three Chinese men and women were swept away by a rapid incoming tide while picking cockles on the sands of Morecambe Bay in northwest England.

Two years on, the flurry of media concern and popular sympathy for the victims and their families has faded, allowing the incident to be classified as a tragic abnormality. A closer look, however, reveals how deeply their fate is connected to the everyday lives of millions of people in Britain and around the world.

Perhaps this was best expressed by Lin Liang Ren, the "gangmaster" in charge of the cockle-pickers, whose trial for manslaughter opened in September 2005 and has heard more than 850 witnesses. Having been detained at Preston prison for nineteen months, Lin Liang Ren, in his bitterness, utters the unsaid: "The ultimate responsibility for the Morecambe Bay deaths lies with the top bosses, the English suppliers and their international clients, who put enormous pressure on us to produce."

For Lin Mu Yong, charged with facilitation, the tragedy was like yesterday. "Tell me – if the big bosses didn't demand a harsh production target, why would any Chinese workers give up their time off and work like hell cockling on the Yuan Xiao night, the night they died?" (Yuan Xiao is a traditional Chinese festival day for reunion.)

Looking at the lives devastated by the tragedy and those still selling their labour on the sands under the same work regime today, one might ask what has changed, beyond convicting the few at the bottom of the chain? Is it that the word "gangmaster" has re-entered the British vocabulary with a "foreign" tint? Is it that the Gangmasters Licensing Bill became law in July 2004 while immigration controls tightened up, driving people more into high-risk, unregulated work? What has changed about the system so often taken for granted – a system that drains the blood off the poorest of the world for the consumption of the richest, a system that maintains itself by strengthening borders?

Long before cockle-picking became a job option for the Chinese workers, they were already toiling away in Britain's primary and secondary food-processing chains, in the south-east, east of England and Scotland. They fell into three groups: failed asylum seekers, destitute asylum seekers waiting for Home Office decisions, or those not known to immigration.

Twenty of the twenty-three drowned cocklers were impoverished farmers and workers from the Fujian province of China, where the majority of current Chinese immigrants to the UK arrive from, only to come up against New Labour's harsh managed migration policy, in which asylum rights are curtailed and manual labour migration discouraged.

The workers resorted to cockling in the following circumstances: when they couldn't send money back home with their low-paid jobs (such as victim Yu Hui, a takeaway worker before deciding to go to Morecambe); when the seasonal, casual nature of work demanded by the multinational retailers moved them from workplace to workplace (such as victim Zhang Xiu-Hua, who had to leave her job in the Norfolk meat-processing factories during the off-peak period); when their vulnerable immigration status and the fear of raids and of dealing with employers as the 'status checkpoint', drove them out of work in urban centres and into high-risk occupations where they became trapped.

Gangmasters found Chinese workers to be "a half-price, more punctual and productive workforce" compared with local workers, and Chinese cockling was initiated and developed into a profitable business not – as commonly assumed – by "snakeheads" (people-smugglers ) but by a layer of prosperous local cockling middlemen who supplied seafood-processing conglomerates. They controlled the workload required and set production targets for the 30-40 Chinese cocklers in each team, and were referred to as "bosses", supplying companies such as Penclawdd Seafoods Ltd (owned by Dani Foods). Contrary to public assumption, the incoming Chinese cocklers recruited since 2002 were making huge profits not for their smugglers but for Dani Foods.

Since low wages and flexibility are the terms for which Chinese workers were selected, local cockling businesses not only endorsed the working conditions under Chinese labour providers but actually played a central part in maintaining their exploitation. Thus businessman Wayne Miller, who worked with Lin Liang Ren in 2003, said he saw no problem with the way Lin operated. Delayed payment by labour users led directly to delayed wages by labour providers, impacting hugely on workers' livelihoods. Some Chinese workers "jumped team" as a solution. The frequent price-cutting by labour users also pushed the labour providers to impose a harsher work regime to produce more and to lower workers' wages.

Health and safety was never a concern to the cockling labour providers and users. Lin Guo, a survivor, told the court that the cocklers were never told about safety and had to just use commonsense to judge what to do when in danger. Workers were never given tide tables, were unaware of local conditions and weren't provided with safety equipment. Labour users work alongside their gangmasters but "that's really up to them" is the attitude regarding health and safety.

Under these conditions, Lin Liang Ren's team was forced to work against the tidal time that night to produce two lorry loads of cockles, to be transported to Spain, for the fishing company and its profitable market abroad. While continuing to defend his alleged non-involvement in organising cockling work, Lin acknowledged, "the sea doesn't have to be dangerous. The danger is man-made." The workers had no idea where their products were eventually going to and how they were consumed - it was their gangmasters (Lin among them), labour users and those at the top of the chain who set the conditions which permitted their deaths.

In the midst of debate on the Gangmasters Licensing Act – to be enforced by the Licensing Authority from April 2006 – gang labour exploitation continued among twenty teams of hundreds of Polish workers at Morecambe Bay under similar working conditions as the Chinese. Led by Polish gangmasters working with local businessmen who initiated the recruitment, the Polish workers, with no experience at sea, reveal that the worst thing about the work is the lack of safety. Nothing has changed.

For them, the vicious circle of exploitation seems endless: the unsatisfactory working conditions in the chicken-processing factory and the diary farms in Morecambe and surrounding areas have pushed many into cockling on the Pilling and Fleetwood cockle beds newly opened in December, despite concerns about safety.

There is no regulatory system to limit the number working the sands and no prevention against abuse in organised labour. But good quality cockles are still fetching £1,000 a tonne – 100 grams of cockles are sold at around £2.80 in the supermarkets. So, business as usual. Each day on Knott End and Pilling Sands, where the bay's flatness guarantees fast tides, two hundred Polish workers can be seen working in pairs. Many of them work two exhausting shifts a day, getting paid £10 per 25-kilo-bucket by the Polish gangmasters. Workers said they haven't even been told about dialling 999 in case of emergency. The local labour users supervise the work daily but claim no responsibility for conditions and work safety. One of them has his cockles processed at Penclawdd Shellfish Processing Ltd in Wales – awarded Welsh Exporter of the Year – which then has them packaged in Holland and exported to Poland and Spain. The company works with 1,500 fishermen who use gang labour all over Britain and makes an annual profit of £4m, but has no idea about working conditions of the cocklers.

Gangmaster Lin Liang Ren blames his "bad luck" for the Morecambe Bay tragedy. But a former Chinese cockler Yang Shang-jin said the tragedy was made possible by the brutality of capitalism. Now it is Polish cockle-pickers who bear the brunt of this ruthless system, as the Chinese workers did two years ago.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData