Monday, February 09, 2004

19 Workers -- Mostly Immigrants -- Drown Trapped by Inrushing Tides

In one of the worst workplace disasters in modern British history, 19 mostly immigrant Chinese workers drowned when they were trapped by a rampaging night tide while picking cockles in Morecambe Bay, Great Britain. According to Tony Woodley, general secretary of the British Transport and General Workers' Union,
Morecambe Bay's famously ferocious tide may be a force of nature, but human beings bear the responsibility for yesterday's deaths of 19 Chinese workers picking cockles. "Drowning" will be the word on their death certificate, but it is cowboy capitalism that has caused this dreadful human tragedy.
The situation sounds very similar to the plight of many immigrant workers in this country who work, get hurt and die in high numbers doing dangerous work that most native Americans wouldn't put up with
The cockle pickers involved form part of the growing army of workers employed in a twilight world propping up profit levels across the British economy. The rightwing 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 an exploitation issue. As the local Labour MP in Morecambe said yesterday: "The cockles are worth a great deal of money, but those poor people who lost their lives were making very little of that."
The workers were working unregulated "gangmasters." According to Hazards Magazine,
Successive governments have rejected union calls to regulate the gangmasters. Instead, clampdowns like "Operation Gangmaster" in the mid-1990s have resulted in little action against the gangmasters. Instead, most enforcement action has hurt the exploited workforce, targeting benefit fraud or immigration offences.
Hazards reports that the ganmasters were deregulated in the 1990's in favor of "weak voluntary codes that leave gang workers at risk of injury, excessive hours, low pay and intimidation. It also means that the government and the authorities cannot keep track of gangmasters' activities. " The Labour government was wary of increasing the regulatory burden on business, dangerous reasoning that sounds frighteningly familiar to those of us on this side of the Atlantic.

More here.