Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/798/18140
2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy: Has anything changed?
It is now ten years since the horrific tragedy of the 23 Chinese cockle pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay.
Heartbreakingly one of the bodies was only found in 2010. This was the highest number of industrial deaths since the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster.
The British government refused to compensate the victims' families for the deaths because they were undocumented workers.
So they were left coping with debts ranging from the £10,000 to £20,000 that it cost them to travel to England from China.
What has changed since 2004 for migrant workers? The tragedy forced the Blair government to bring in the Gangmaster Licencing Act (GLA), which regulates agencies employing workers in the fresh food produce and packing industry, shellfish gathering, agriculture and horticulture.
After the GLA came into effect in October 2006, agencies were meant to have a licence and adhere to proper labour practices.
The penalty, if found guilty of not registering, is imprisonment of up to ten years. More than 3,000 should be registered though just over one third are.
Only 20% of GLA-licenced labour providers are thought to be genuinely abiding by the standards. Unregistered labour providers feel they have little to worry about. As undocumented workers have no rights, they will not be covered by even the GLA.
Migrant Rights Convention
The UN created the international convention - known as the Migrant Rights Convention - in 1990. This set out minimum standards to protect migrant workers.
Only 37 member states out of 192 ratified the Convention, all of them labour-sending countries. No migrant-receiving countries, including the UK, ratified this Convention.
In 2007 the Labour government yielded to the bosses' CBI pressure and decided not to pass the Agency Workers Directive, which would have given full employment rights to agency workers after six weeks of starting the job.
Exploitation of migrant workers, particularly undocumented workers, continues with many not receiving the national minimum wage and sometimes no pay at all.
Employment agencies also illegally charge registration fees, making the workers pay again if they are dismissed and need a replacement job.
They also charge exorbitant rents in overcrowded flats and make random deductions from their wages.
Immigration control means workers from non-EU countries find it harder and harder to come to the UK as documented workers.
The existing 200,000 undocumented Chinese workers in Britain, here to lift themselves and their families out of poverty, continue to be maltreated and trapped.
With or without papers they want to be able to work openly. The government makes this impossible, maintaining the workers' illegality and exploitation through tightening controls and refusing to protect them.
Cheap flexible labour
There are up to one million undocumented migrant workers in Britain. Businesses make profits from their cheap flexible labour, working for appalling wages and working hours.
They are producing wealth for a country that permanently excludes them. The trade unions should campaign to ensure no one gets paid below the rate for the job.
Migration is a global phenomenon and will not go away. The fluctuations of capitalism, wars and inequality cause an endless and growing movement of labour.
According to the ILO, the number of people living outside their countries of origin rose between 1975 and 2000, from 75 million to 175 million and could double again in the next 25 years.
Undocumented workers account for 20% of global migration so there are 24 million 'illegal workers' worldwide.
There are 5.5 million illegal workers in Europe, yet they have no rights. The Council of Europe's report in 2007, 'Regularising Irregular Migrants,' even pointed out that a large proportion of these migrants could not be sent home as they were asylum seekers who may face imprisonment or death on their return.
Or they were smuggled into Europe, which means they have no documents for their countries of origin to accept them as citizens.
They are here to stay as the 'ghost citizens' upon whose labour much of the wealth of Europe's capitalist class is built.
Let's fight for the rights of all workers, including defending health and safety at work, and avoid future Morecambe Bays.
- For an in-depth analysis of Britain's hidden army of labour read Hsiao-Hung Pai's excellent book, 'Chinese Whispers.' She interviewed undocumented workers in the UK but also went 'underground' and worked alongside them, suffering the same humiliation, poverty wages and conditions reported in her book.
In The Socialist 12 February 2014:
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