THE BLOG

On the Tenth Anniversary of the Morecambe Bay Tragedy

29/01/2014 10:54 GMT | Updated 30/03/2014 10:59 BST

Ten years ago next week, more than 30 Chinese cocklers were caught by rising waters in Morecambe Bay. Two hours after they should have been called in from the Bay by their recruiter and manager Ah Ren, they realised it was too late to escape. They began calling their families and said goodbye. Only 22 bodies were found - the last of them in 2010 - but it is believed that 23 people died that day.

This tragedy brought the shady gangmaster world to the attention of people across the world. The RNLI commander, Harry Roberts, who found the cocklers, said at the time: "They didn't have any safety gear and some of them were naked because they had taken their clothes off to help them swim". It was a shocking image and was the result of absolute exploitation of workers who were paid 11p an hour and were not looked after in what was, and still is, an extremely dangerous job. Ah Ren ignored tidal charts and safety rules.

It was the worst workplace disaster since Piper Alpha in 1988. And the height in a trend that saw other tragic incidents involving workers who were organised by illegal gangmasters.

It was at this time that I brought through Parliament the Private Members Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill. It introduced regulations into the agriculture, shellfish, and food processing and packaging industries. At the time, it was estimated that as many as 100,000 workers were employed by at least 3,000 gangmasters in these industries alone.

The Labour Government took note, and to date, the proudest moment of my career in politics was seeing the creation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority in 2005. It is a Non Departmental Public Body, which operates a licensing scheme to regulate businesses that provide workers to these industries. Labour providers are assessed to check they meet the GLA Licensing standards, covering health and safety, accommodation, pay, transport and training.

It has provided a framework to catch gangmasters in the act, such as in Kent in 2012, where over thirty Lithuanian workers were found working to repay loans, and sometimes denied pay at all. They were verbally and physically threatened by their employers and housed in squalid conditions. They were collecting free range eggs for major retailers. But the GLA led an enforcement operation against them.

Not all gangmasters are terrible, but we needed some way to prevent exploitation such as this. We needed the licensing system to separate the bad from the good.

The legislation was a useful product of its time and stopped exploitation in the sectors where gangmaster abuses were most prevalent.

But we have moved on.

Successive attempts have been made to extend the powers of the GLA. In this Parliament, my colleague Andy Sawford, is sponsoring the Private Members Bill 'Gangmasters Licensing Authority (Extension of Powers) Bill'. I wish him the best of luck, but the sad fact is this Government is not interested.

Instead they are reducing the GLA's remit, which will no longer be able to regulate the forestry sector, land agents, volunteers working for charities, some apprenticeship training agencies, and cleaning contractors operating in the food processing industry.

Instead we should be expanding it, trying to tackle abues such as the one UCATT found in the construction industry, where workers on a public sector hospital site were being paid £8.80 per week. Or in the care industry, where Oxfam and Kalayaan found examples of people working more than 60 and sometimes even 100 hours per week, without sick pay or holiday pay.

I said at the time of the Morecambe Bay tragedy that a life is a life. We must ask ourselves: how would we feel if our brothers, our sisters or our children were in this position abroad, in a country they did not understand. Would we expect their hosts to sit back and watch it happen?

I have tabled a motion in Parliament, and hope the attempts of my colleagues will one day soon be successful. Because we need to control the gangmaster world for good.