The Socialist 14 February 2004 |
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"Victims Of Cowboy Capitalism"
THE HORRIFYING tragedy that took place on Morecambe
Bay, resulting in the deaths of 19 Chinese migrant workers, exposed the
exploitation of capitalism at its worse. Tony Woodley, the new general
secretary of the T&G union said they were "victims of cowboy capitalism".
Teresa MacKay RAAW/TGWU (agricultural workers)
The failure to regulate gangmasters and to monitor
working conditions has allowed this and similar abuses to grow at an
alarming rate in recent years. Agriculture in particular has always been
an area of rampant exploitation. It is highly seasonal and relies on
temporary labour providers, better know as gangmasters. The demand for
workers who are prepared to take on dirty, difficult, dangerous and
low-paid work that nobody else wants to do has increased, with
unscrupulous employers and criminal gangs exploiting migrant labour in
The horrendous deaths in Morecambe Bay were an
accident waiting to happen, according to local people, who have pointed
the finger at the ruthless gangmasters. The police have arrested seven
people in the Merseyside area. It has been reported that these individuals
could be making up to £20,000 a day in the lucrative cockle trade.
The workers on the other hand are paid slave wages of
£1 for nine hours of backbreaking work in these unsafe conditions. They
are housed in appalling conditions without electricity or water and given
minimum amounts of food.
Many have been charged £20,000 a head to be brought to
Britain by gangs of people traffickers, often only paying a deposit with
the rest deducted from their paltry wages. If ever a modern system of
slavery existed, this is it.
OVER THE past decade, thousands of migrant workers,
documented and undocumented have been exploited in this way. The majority
speak little or no English and know nothing about labour laws.
Migrant workers in Norfolk were paid £3 to cut 1,000
daffodils. Unlawful deductions for transport, food, accommodation,
clothing, equipment and admin charges are common. A gang worker in the
Midlands was charged £600 for documentation that was never produced.
One worker in Cambridgeshire was left with £3.85 for
his week's work after the gangmaster deducted his rent. Another was forced
to drive a tractor he had never driven before; when he crashed and could
not pay the £700 repair bill demanded, he was sacked and evicted from his
Homelessness of migrant workers has reached crisis
point in many of our rural towns and villages. Even those who are housed
can be crammed 40 in a house and ten in a room, in houses without hot
water or electricity. They are kept in line with the constant fear of
It was reported that several of the people trapped by
the tide in Morecambe Bay, scared of the consequences of being rescued,
tried to hide from the lifeboats and helicopters.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what is taking
place in the Britain today. Gangmasters have been in operation since the
19th century. The present unregulated gangmaster system ranges from
multi-million pound organisations supplying hundreds of workers on a daily
basis to small-scale outfits that rely on personal connections and word of
It is estimated that there could be 3,000 gangmasters
supplying 75,000 workers, though the government has no statistics.
This labour of migrant workers is essential to the
employers and no longer just confined to agriculture but to work in health
care, education, cleaning, food manufacture, hospitality, IT and
construction. The trade unions have to play their role in organising and
protecting all workers, whether documented or undocumented.
If the bosses can succeed in giving migrant workers
less rights or pay, this will lower wages and conditions for the rest of
the population as well as creating divisions between migrants and workers
Migrant workers in the processing industry where the
unions are recognised are joining and playing an active role. This has
proved very positive in cutting across the divisions between workers that
Unless this is taken on board working conditions will
deteriorate still further and more terrible tragedies will occur.
Private Members' Bill
The T&G have a Private Members Bill going through Parliament with the second reading on 28 February. The bill is seeking to:
- Define a gangmaster.
- Establish an effective system for registering and licensing a gangmaster.
- Produce a register open to public inspection.
- Ensure there is a duty of compliance upon gangmasters and sanctions to those evading registration and licensing.
- Ensure that their employer cannot withhold the documentation of gangworkers (i.e. passport or identity papers).
All gangmasters would have to pay a fee to register and once registered would be liable to tax, National Insurance and VAT.
In spite of their support for regulation, the biggest five supermarkets must take some of the blame for the present situation, demanding cheap produce supplied 24 hours a day seven days a week.
They control 70% of the grocery market in the UK and buy 80% of the fresh produce putting tremendous pressure on packhouses and farmers to reduce costs.
They in turn cut back on wages, paying the minimum. Gangmasters, who provide the labour, will usually take 30% of the price offered with the workers getting the rest. This process has become known as the 'race to the bottom.'
Global capitalist exploitation
WHY DO Chinese workers seek to travel thousands of miles to Europe? The migration trail is highly dangerous. In 2000, 58 Chinese migrants were found suffocated in the back of a lorry stopped at Dover.
It also means a lifetime of debt to the traffickers who demand massive payments (around £20,000 plus interest), forcing these workers into the unregulated economy to work on slave labour rates or into prostitution and the sex industry.
This migration is due to the reintroduction of capitalism in China which has made millions of its public sector workers and peasants redundant, without a welfare system. So, while multinational companies in conjunction with the Chinese ruling elite exploit for profit these huge reserves of cheap labour to produce manufactured goods consumed in the West, millions more are unable to find work even in these exploitative centres of manufacturing.
It is this system of global capitalism and its insatiable desire for profit that is responsible for the ruination of, and in the case of the Morecambe workers the deaths of, working-class people.
IT IS in the drive for profits at all costs which killed the Chinese migrants in Morecambe Bay. While Home Secretary, David Blunkett is busy criticising the exploitation of the gangmasters and employers of illegal migrants, he has also been massively extending the number of temporary work permits available for unskilled work in industries where there is a shortage of labour; that is jobs in industries where the work is so labour-intensive and low paid that most workers in Britain are not prepared to take them.
In the mid-1990s, around 30,000 work permits a year were being issued. In 2002, 137,500 were.
Officially, legal migrant workers with work permits are supposed to be paid the minimum wage and given the same rights as UK workers. In reality this is often not the case, partly because of the difficulties of organising workers who are only in the country for a few weeks or months as well as other barriers like language.