The Underbelly of Globalisation
The Underbelly of Globalisation
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 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 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 58 Chinese people who died in the back of a lorry crossing the Channel in 2000? 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.
The poor Chinese cockle pickers are the tip of an enormous iceberg of migrant labour working in many sectors of the economy, in all parts of the country. In Norfolk, gang workers were paid just £3 to cut 1,000 daffodils. 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 that 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 £4m in unpaid tax and national insurance contributions from gangmasters in the Thames Valley area.
The British labour movement has a responsibility to tackle this crisis. If we do not reach out to the super-exploited, then who will? But that demands a change of culture and priorities. My top priority is to turn the TGWU into an organising union once more, offering a home to everyone facing injustice at work. There needs to be a massive shift in resources towards recruitment, tackling the anti-union employer and bring millions of often low-paid unorganised workers - wherever they come from - under union protection.
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. Lax UK law is encouraging this exploitation at present.
Jim Sheridan MP, with the backing of the TGWU, the National Farmers Union 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.
The gangmasters licensing bill would compel such "labour providers" to obtain licenses 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 big step towards preventing tragedies such as Morecambe Bay. For those 19 cockle pickers, it is too late. But turning Jim Sheridan's bill into law would be a suitable memorial.
Tony Woodley is general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union.