back to front - a modern slave trade


On 5 February, 20 (possibly more) Chinese cockle pickers died in Morecambe Bay. How could this have been allowed to happen?

As long ago as the summer of 2000, BBC's Panorama exposed the gangmaster system. Last July, the TUC warned that migrant workers were being exploited across the country, in Scotland, East Anglia, Lincolnshire, Kent, Sussex and elsewhere. Their numbers have risen by 44% in the last seven years, to an estimated 2.6 million. (This is probably an underestimate, given the difficulty of counting illegal workers.) Last September, the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs produced a report on illegal working. Yet the government did nothing.

Morecambe people, including cockle pickers, had warned of the dangers to the Chinese people working illegally in the Bay, but nobody in authority had listened. When police and officials from the Department for Work and Pensions organised a raid to find illegal workers in Morecambe, the Immigration Service refused to help, claiming a "shortage of resources", and "other priorities".

Yet when the local MP wrote to the Home Office, immigration minister Beverley Hughes replied, "The Government is cracking down on illegal working and making good progress in removing increasing numbers of immigration offenders...". In fact, in the whole country, only one alleged gangmaster had been prosecuted in 2002, and four-fifths of those who lost asylum appeals stayed in Britain anyway.

Now the government says that it will back Jim Sheridan's private member's bill requiring gangmasters to be registered, to make them pay the minimum wage and ensure workers' safety. Yet there are already laws in abundance governing minimum wages, health and safety, human rights, etc. — and unless every single one has a clause in it saying that it does not apply to gangmasters, the government could enforce them now. A new bill is unnecessary, just a parade of concern.

Why are the existing laws not being enforced? Because to this government and the class it represents, the free movement of global labour is more sacred than life. Workers from abroad, willing to pay £20K to buy themselves into slavery, working nine-hour days for a £1 a day, suit capitalism just fine. The big supermarkets buy from farms and food packaging factories that use migrant labour, then deny all knowledge. A free labour market equals a modern slave trade.

One gangmaster tried to excuse capitalism by blaming the tragedy on 'racism' among the cockle pickers, but 'racism' is not the problem: white migrant workers from Eastern Europe are equally exploited.

The answer to problems created by the free movement of labour is not to free it even more, by for instance legalising all immigration, as some suggest. Removing even the current, limited controls would encourage more people to come here for work, increasing the competition for jobs, further lowering wages and conditions. To welcome immigration, as the government does, is to welcome low wages and poor conditions.

We need to take control of our affairs. The Immigration Service should be allowed to do its job and enforce the laws against illegal immigration and illegal working. On asylum we should follow Holland's example, and decide asylum cases within 48 hours, and appeals within 60 days. Rejected asylum seekers are deported at once. Above all, local communities and trade unions need to involve themselves in organising migrant workers wherever they are, forcing the employers to improve wages and conditions