Union action after Morecambe Bay

Submitted by Anon on 25 February, 2004 - 1:59

The following article by TGWU General Secretary, Tony Woodley first appeared in the Guardian on 7 February.

Morecambe Bay's famously ferocious tide may be a force of nature, but the death of eighteen Chinese workers picking cockles is due to human acts.
The cockle pickers involved form part of the growing army of workers employed in a twilight world propping up profit levels in many parts of the British economy. The right-wing response can be predicted. They will ask why these workers were in the country, not why they were working - almost certainly for very little - in such dangerous circumstances, and for whom. This is not a migration issue. It is above all an exploitation issue.

The sordid underbelly of free-market globalisation is on display at that sandbank in Morecambe Bay. Working people are being uprooted from their communities across the world by the unchecked movement of capital and brought to Britain in order to provide cheap labour.

They often put their lives at risk even getting here - remember the more than forty Chinese people who died in the back of the lorry crossing the Channel? On arrival, they face intolerable and unsafe living and working conditions right under our noses, providing services and goods we take for granted. Nobody gains but reckless employers.

There are respectable providers of labour for seasonal work in agriculture but pay and conditions are undermined by rogue employers, "gangmasters" in the appropriately Victorian parlance, who find even the very limited protections afforded by British employment law too burdensome.

In Norfolk, gang workers were paid just three pounds to cut 1,000 daffodils. An unqualified Dorset gang worker was forced to drive a tractor, crashed the vehicle, was unable to pay the £700 he was charged and was then evicted from his caravan. In Bristol, a gangmaster crammed 27 workers into a single small house, while in Cambridgeshire workers were forced to live in partitioned containers with no water supply - and were deducted up to £80 a week rent from their meagre earnings for the privilege. In a fish processing plant in Scotland, gang workers were found working 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, for less than the minimum wage.

It is a system which preys on the vulnerable. In the Midlands, a gang worker was charged £600 by a gangmaster for documentation that was never provided. Such employers also cheat the taxpayer, of course. During 2002/03, the Inland Revenue recouped more than £4 million in unpaid tax and national insurance contributions from gangmasters in the Thames Valley area alone.

The British labour movement has a responsibility to tackle this crisis. If we do not reach out to the super-exploited then who will? My top priority is to turn the TGWU into an organising union once more, offering a home to everyone facing injustice at work.

But government must act, too. It is unacceptable that unscrupulous illegal operators can treat human beings in this way without any fear of intervention by the authorities. No-one can be sure how many gangmasters operate in the British economy, but it could be as many as 3,000. Left unchecked the number will most likely grow with the eastward expansion of the European Union.

Jim Sheridan MP, with the full backing of the TGWU and a coalition of other interested parties - including the National Farmers Union, legitimate gangmasters and those involved with the welfare of migrants - has tabled a bill in the Commons to regulate gangmasters in agriculture (including harvesting shellfish), food processing and packaging and help stamp out these labour practices which belong in the history books and nowhere else.

The Gangmasters Licensing Bill would compel such "labour providers" to obtain licences and operate within the law, including respecting minimum employment provisions. This would stop the worse employer undercutting the better. The government has yet to agree to support this modest proposal. With proper enforcement, it could be a major step towards preventing tragedies such as Morecambe Bay. For those 18 cockle pickers, it is too late. But Jim Sheridan's bill would be a suitable memorial.

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