Media & Resources

A decade on from the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy, the business of human trafficking is thriving

5 Feb 2014
Exactly a decade has passed since twenty-three Chinese men and women met their tragic deaths at Morecambe Bay, drowned while out picking cockles on the notoriously dangerous stretch of coastline, working for the profits of an illegal gangmaster.
 
One of the most shocking aspects of the story for many people was the idea that significant numbers of migrant workers were walking among them in the streets of provincial English towns, having been trafficked from their homelands and held captive by ruthless gangmasters  intent on exploiting the marginal social and legal presence of these vulnerable workers for their own personal gain. 
 
It would be easy to attribute blame to a few greedy and inhumane individuals seeking to capitalise on the desperation of others, but, as the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society set out in a policy brief published back in 2009, the problem is systemic, and may require a much more radical solution. In the policy brief, Karen Bravo from Indiana University sets out a new vision for transborder labour policy, which challenges the complete failure of international trade law to respond to the demands for movement of labour brought about by the twenty-first century globalized economy. 
 
The interaction of international trade law and domestic immigration law, which seeks to barricade domestic markets from the entry of transborder workers, actually fosters illegal transborder movements that greatly increase the vulnerability to exploitation of these migrant labour providers. Instead, what is needed, Professor Bravo argues, is a liberalization of labour in order to make both the international human rights and multilateral trade regimes more consistent with human (and labour) rights ideals. 
 
The public outcry in the aftermath of the Morecambe Bay tragedy did indeed lead to new legislation in the UK in the form of the Gangmasters Licensing Act, as part of attempts to regulate and license those who sought to exploit this vulnerability of migrant workers exposed to the vagaries of conflicting legal frameworks.  
 
But with only one person imprisoned in the eight years since the tragedy, and with the body devised to oversee this regulation, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, suffering the loss of one-fifth of its budget in recent years, we might question the resolve of the authorities to commit resources to this growing issue of Gangmaster-controlled work, which has been estimated at a value of £1.34bn of the UK economy.
 
With only one person imprisoned in the eight years since the tragedy, we might question the resolve of the authorities to commit resources to this growing issue of Gangmaster-controlled work, which has been estimated at a value of £1.34bn of the UK economy.
 
It is a question to which we will return later this year, with a workshop on The Business of Traffic In Humans, which will examine the sophisticated techniques of trafficking networks to operate beneath the cover of legitimate business, and the government response in the form of the UK Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, established last year to set clear expectations for UK companies. The conference, convened by Marija Jovanovic from the Oxford Law Faculty, will bring together representatives from the European Commission and Council of Europe, with lawyers, International NGOs, and the police service, to lift the lid on these under-investigated practices, examine the duty of both the state and of business to protect against exploitation, and to assess the role of the law in ensuring compliance.
 
Speaking today on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, Paul Broadbent, Chief Executive of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, has defended their record of bringing fewer that seventy prosecutions and only one imprisonment in the eight years since it was established, arguing with some justification that, “It is out of my hands whether those prosecuted receive a custodial sentence”. 
 
Such a statement, along with his call for “a more robust approach to the current legislation”, points to a pressing need to revisit the way that the agencies responsible for policing Gang-controlled labour and human trafficking collaborate, to help prevent another tragedy of the type that brought such public outrage at Morecambe Bay ten years ago, or indeed the many others that go unnoticed beneath the surface of ostensibly legitimate business activity.
 
The workshop, The Business of Traffic in Humans will be held at Wolfson College, Oxford, on 8th May 2014. To reserve your place, please complete the registration form on the event webpage.