Cockle Pickers die at Morecambe Bay
Morecambe Bay, which sweeps around a vast area of the North Lancashire and South Cumbria coastline, is and always has been a dangerous place, the slope out to sea almost imperceptible, the arrival of its tides breathtakingly swift. It is also pitted with quicksands, and the gulleys and rivulets that criss-cross it can make finding your way a nightmare.
It was on this deadly ground that 23 Chinese cockle pickers died on February 5 2004. The bay is a public fishery, licences to gather cockles there were easy to come by, and for one reason or another the authorities paid little heed to what was happening on the sands. Rumours of the dangers run by pickers ignorant of local conditions seem to have aroused little reaction.
Gangs of pickers would be transported to the area to rake up the sought after cockles which were sold on to middlemen who then distributed the produce to wider markets. Even though the price fluctuated, there was big money to be made.
On February 5 2004 gangmaster Lin Liang Ren had a large team out on the sands in the Hest Bank area in the afternoon, set to pick until the evening. But a miscalculation had been made, and they were caught by the tide, panicking when they were cut off. They possessed no safety equipment. Some who made it to higher ground survived. But most who tried to swim to safety perished, the sea in a British winter close to freezing. Some had thrown off their clothes to make swimming easier, but to no avail. Rescuers reached some and brought them to safety, but in the main their grisly task was pulling bodies from the sea. In total 21 bodies were recovered; another two have never been found.
At the subsequent trial it was revealed that Lin Liang Ren had been aware of what was happening, but for his own reasons failed to alert the emergency services for some 50 minutes. He was jailed for 12 years for manslaughter, and six for immigration offences, to run concurrently, plus two years on top of that for attempting to pervert the course of justice. Two others were convicted with him.
During the trial and after it the guilty parties attempted to push the blame on others, and incredibly some public figures wished to blame the government for the deaths, rather than the greed and callousness of Lin.
The affair did, however, play a major part in subsequent changes to the legislation concerning gangmasters, and led to greater awareness of the plight of illegal immigrants caught between the smuggling gangs, those who lent them money for the journey to Britain, and the people happy to exploit them once in the country.
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