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After Morecambe Bay

The cocklers' tragedy has been turned into a Dickensian melodrama.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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The tragic drowning of 19 cocklers in Morecambe Bay, all Chinese immigrants working at night in treacherous conditions, has sparked horror throughout Britain.

Rather than the tragedy being discussed in relation to current immigration and labour law, commentators have painted a picture of an almost Dickensian underworld, where workers eke out a living under the shadow of their ‘gangmasters’. This has been taken as archetypal of the kind of shadow economy that exists across Britain, in industries such as food-packaging, fruit-picking and gardening.

Reports of the Morecambe Bay deaths detailed the awfulness of the events. Long articles went into the immigrants’ last moments – the way in which they were trapped, struggled for their lives and then succumbed to the rising waves. ‘They never stood a chance’, reported the London Evening Standard. ‘Terrified and weak, some stripped naked in a desperate bid to keep their heads above water… Within minutes they were snatched by the rapidly rising tide and forced to tread water until they could hold out no more.’ (1) Reports about the immigrants’ housing had a similar tone – ’40 cockle slaves in one house’, read a Sun headline. We were told that the immigrants slept two abreast on bare mattresses; that they worked in shifts, coming and going all night.

No doubt there is a genuine element of sympathy and outrage to these reports. But there was also an element of salaciousness in the telling of these people’s harsh tales, rather like watching a horror film – or reading Dickens, come to that. Suffering was blamed on the ‘evil gangmasters’ who kept the workers in these conditions, tough-looking white men who ‘had Liverpool accents and circled the workers all the time’, earned £20,000 a day and drove around in smart cars while paying their workers as little as £1 a day (2). Julia Hodson, assistant chief constable of Lancashire, described gang bosses who benefited from the labour of illegal immigrants as ‘criminals of the worst possible kind’; the police have now arrested some of the organisers on suspicion of manslaughter (3).

The way this story was turned into a moral fable pre-disposes it to hearsay and exaggeration. Reports that cocklers manage to send home hundreds of pounds a month do not square with their alleged £1 daily salary. And the cackling gangmasters are likely to be more prosaic figures in real life.

That illegal immigrants live and work in dire conditions is not in doubt. Yet this is a consequence of UK immigration policy. It is because immigrants are unable to live and work legally in Britain that they take such jobs and live in such conditions, and those who abuse and exploit them are parasites on the immigration system. The harshness of Britain’s shadow economy is because this economy is outside the law. It is a twilight world, where contracts between labourers and bosses occur only informally, and workers have no rights or comeback.

Little surprise then that bosses cheat their workers, put their lives at risk, and pay them a pittance. Desperation works better for labour discipline than the harshest whip.

The people who were working at Morecambe Bay were not ‘slaves’, as has been claimed. They decided to be smuggled to Britain and work collecting cockles in order to improve their lives. One 22-year-old Chinese girl said: ‘I left China for many reasons. It is a better life in England.’ (4) One son gathering cockles on the English coast can support a whole family back home in rural China, where the wages are low and jobs scarce. Immigrants are prepared to risk harshness here because the option of staying back in China is far worse.

The Morecambe Bay tragedy has spurred the government to talk about new repressive legal measures, which would have severe implications for both illegal immigrants and British citizens. Prime minister Tony Blair has announced that the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard of proof will be set aside to make it easier to convict organised crime bosses and people traffickers, in favour of the ‘balance of probabilities’ used in civil cases (5). Such a measure would remove the key protection in the legal system against wrongful prosecution, making it easier for the state to imprison people for long periods of time with less proof of their guilt.

Blair’s logic, that serious crimes require easier conviction, turns things on their head. It is precisely in cases of serious crimes, where somebody stands to be put away for 10 years or more, that the court needs to know they did it – rather than think that they probably did.

The only way to get rid of Britain’s shadow economy is to bring it into the daylight, and allow more people to enter the country legally. Unfortunately, the moral fable of Morecambe Bay has been used to justify the opposite response. There have been a number of calls for harsher restrictions on immigration – among them from former Tory Party leader William Hague, who called for ‘today’s ministers to get a grip, by removing illegal entrants, applying tougher benefit rules and cracking down on criminal exploitation’ (6). By these accounts, the lesson of Morecambe Bay is that immigrants should be kept out of Britain.

Whatever the bluster, however, there seems little chance of a crackdown taking place. It is because of the reality gap between the political insistence upon stringent immigration laws and the practical inability to enforce them that the shadow economy is as much a feature of today’s Britain as it is. Reports have noted that Chinese cocklers returned to Morecambe Bay soon after the deaths. Attempting to batten down the hatches will only force illegal working further into the shadows, meaning people going to more desperate lengths to get here, and working illicitly in a more vulnerable position.

Illegal workers will not be helped by journalists feeling their pain – or by politicians increasing it. Instead, they need to be made legal, and enjoy the same rights and protections as everybody else in Britain – including the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard of proof in criminal trials.

(1) ‘Chinese immigrants: they never stood a chance’, Evening Standard, 7 February 2004

(2) Evil gangmasters who rule the cockle slave trade by fear, Observer, 8 February 2004

(3) Cockle deaths spark gang fears, BBC News, 6 February 2004

(4) 7 arrested as cocklers return to bay, Mirror, 9 February 2004

(5) ‘Rougher justice for drug barons and gangsters’, The Times, 10 February 2004

(6) ‘This is 21st-century slavery’, Guardian, 9 February 2004

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Topics Politics

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