This February marks the ten-year anniversary of the cockle picking tragedy at Morecambe Bay where 23 men and women lost their lives while searching for cockles. Much has been written in the past week about the tragedy with one of the common themes being to focus on matters which are still to be addressed, despite promises at the time that they would be.
An account quoted in the Guardian from local fisherman Harold Benson, who attempted with the rescue only to retrieve bodies from the sea, described the events as “awful beyond words” and “totally avoidable”. Mr Benson had previously helped rescue 50 to 60 stranded Chinese cockle pickers in 2003 and felt that should have served as a warning to the authorities.
The tragedy gave rise to the Gangmasters Licensing Act in 2004. Some feel that the act has failed to have any major effect on the situation. Certainly, it has not prevented further instances which have highlighted that a number of gangmasters continue to send workers out without the necessary safety equipment or instruction and are not called into question for doing so. Some would argue therefore that a clear lesson was there to be learnt, but wasn’t.
Others feel that the legislation is full of good intentions, but the reality of what it means in practice to those in the business of supplying labour is quite different. The legislation was brought in to try and prevent, among other things, workers being tied to poor and expensive accommodation, having to pay to be given work, being "fined" if they are ill and similar unfair treatment.
Many of the problems encountered are caused by language difficulties which mean that someone underneath the licensed gangmaster can still be imposing unlawful requirements on workers (unknown to the gangmaster). It is often their own countrymen who abuse them and it can be extremely difficult for the licensed gangmaster to find out what is happening. Staff are often scared of repercussions such as physical abuse, or being starved of work, if they tell the gangmaster (or the GLA) what is happening.
By Geoffrey May, a graduate paralegal in the regulatory department
If you are a gangmaster seeking assistance in relation to licensing or advice concerning the Gangamsters Licensing Act 2004, contact our regulatory team for a discussion about how we can help - 0333 344 4772.