Morecambe Bay Tragedy
3rd February 2009
Five Years On and GLA Toughens its Stance. The 5th anniversary of the Morecambe Bay Tragedy occurs this week. On February 5th 2004, 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned through the behaviour of a ruthless and criminal gangmaster.
The cockle pickers were abandoned on the mud flats of Morecambe Bay as the tide rose at a rate said to be "faster than a galloping horse‟. They had no protection and they had no escape.
Two of the bodies have still not been recovered. The main defendant, Lin Liang Ren was convicted on 21 counts of manslaughter and sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment followed by deportation to China. The GLA now has over two years experience of operations, and has already raised the standards of many gangmasters, but has decided to toughen up the sanctions and standards it will apply from April 2009.
Increasing the likelihood that a gangmaster who ill-treats workers will have his licence revoked immediately, so that he has to stop trading straight away.
Disqualifying gangmasters for two years when they are considered to be not fit and proper to hold a licence or have their licence revoked more than once (two strikes and out).
Widening investigations into the background and track record of those involved in the licensed business to include anyone who influences its management.
Expanding the test of who is a fit and proper person to be a gangmaster to catch those who try to exercise control without being named on our licence.
We have seen increasing numbers of rogues lurking in the shadows trying to manipulate licence businesses with an invisible hand. Often these rogues have been previously caught out by the GLA and had their own licence revoked. Shellfish gangmasters now have a much more explicit set of standards to ensure that they know exactly what they must do. This will make enforcing these standards easier.
The GLA's approach to stamping out rogue and criminal gangmasters will be toughened as a result of these and other changes, which will take effect from 6 April 2009. GLA enforcement officers will be conducting a number of unannounced raids as part of the ongoing Operation Ajax.
The Gangmasters Licensing Authority was established to combat the rogue and criminal gangmasters who abuse those who work for them, and to protect the much higher number of good gangmasters who treat their workers properly.
The GLA has been stamping out abusive practices ever since by licensing gangmasters who work across the food processing sector from field to fork. Although no tragedy on the scale of Morecambe Bay has occurred since the introduction of the GLA and the standards of many gangmasters have vastly improved, there is still abuse and the GLA will continue to demand that workers receive the full protection of UK law.
During 2008, the GLA revoked a record number of these licences. The leap in revocations coincides with the launch of Operation Ajax in April 2008 to stamp down on worker exploitation and abuse.
Chairman of the GLA Paul Whitehouse said:
“During our first phase of operations we faced a variety of scams and efforts to deceive us. We now know what we need to do to put these rogues out of business.”
“We have been heartened by the support we have received from many workers who have been helped by us, and by everyone in the industry who wishes to see its good name restored. We are also pleased to learn from our colleagues in HMRC that they are seeing increased revenue from taxation as a result of our efforts.”
“We are determined to ensure that the gangmasters we regulate meet the highest standards and pay the penalty when they step out of line. This is why we have ramped up our standards, expectations and enforcement activities.”
“There are no new legal requirements in these standards so well run businesses will not be affected.”
Jim Sheridan, MP for Paisley & Renfrewshire North said:
“Whilst recognising the good work of the GLA we must also evaluate the effectiveness of the legislation to ensure it is delivering on its objective and has the resources needed to expose and punish those who seek to place innocent workers in danger. Equally so we must ensure that shared information between all agencies makes it as difficult as possible for illegal gangmasters to exploit workers in other industries or sectors”.
Peter Luff, MP for Mid-Worcestershire and Chairman of the Business and Enterprise House of Commons Select Committee said:
“I know from my own constituency what a positive difference the GLA has made; it‟s now much easier for reputable growers to be confident that their workers are legally employed and fairly treated. The further toughening of the authority‟s sanctions makes good sense and should be welcomed”.
Jack Dromey, Deputy General secretary of Unite who co-ordinated the campaign in support of Jim Sheridan's Private Members Bill that introduced the GLA, described the GLA as:
“A fitting memorial to the 23 young Chinese workers who died a terrible death on Morecambe sands".
"The GLA" he continued 'has had a profound effect on an industry that was characterised by exploitation and undercutting, driving out of business rogue gangmasters. The tough new measures send an unmistakeable message that there will be no place in Britain for modern day slavery”.
Lord Hunt, Defra Minister responsible for the GLA, said:
“On this fifth anniversary of the tragedy at Morecambe Bay our thoughts will be for the families of the 23 Chinese cockle pickers who lost their lives. The Government set up the Gangmasters Licensing Authority with all Party support in the wake of that disaster so such a tragedy should not happen again.”
"We welcome what the GLA has done so far to improve standards and the news that it is taking tough measures to deal with those who continue to seek to exploit vulnerable workers. "It is important that there are clear and explicit standards in place for shellfish and other gangmasters, tough sanctions and that the GLA should act effectively and rigorously."
Notes to editors
1. Research and trials conducted before the GLA implemented the licensing system in 2006 suggested that 96% of gangmasters could not meet strict licensing standards. This led to a ranking system where although all standards would need to be corrected, not all of them would count towards a revocation of a licence. The standards to be implemented in April would count all standard failures towards a revocation and a point score of 30 or over (critical failures score 30 points alone) would lead to the licence being revoked.
2. From April 2008 to mid August 2008, 22 gangmasters‟ licences were revoked, compared to 33 from April 2007 to March 2008 and 15 from April 2006 to March 2007. In total 85 licences have now been revoked. Additionally one unlicensed gangmaster has been convicted, and another three cases are currently in court including one shellfish gangmaster.
3. The GLA was set up to protect workers in agriculture, shellfish gathering and food processing and packaging. There are approximately 1,200 gangmasters licensed by the GLA. To get and keep a licence, gangmasters must be „fit and proper‟.
4. It is illegal to operate without a licence, with the maximum penalty of ten years in prison and an unlimited fine.
5. The GLA launched Operation Ajax on 2 June 2008. This will see the Authority increasing its activities across the UK with an 18-month programme of targeted enforcement, involving unannounced raids.
6. It has been an offence to supply labour to the GLA regulated sectors since 1 October 2006, with the maximum penalty being ten years imprisonment and an unlimited fine.
7. All licences that are revoked have the right of appeal including licences revoked with immediate effect.
8. GLA Chairman, Paul Whitehouse, is available for interview.
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