How was it that on a cold and windy night almost three years ago, a group of young Chinese men and women were stranded by incoming tides at Morecambe Bay, with 23 tragically drowning?
Ghosts, renowned director Nick Broomfield’s latest film, is a powerful account of the circumstances that drove these immigrants into one of the most dangerous industries in the country.
Ghosts is what the Chinese immigrants call British people – a reflection of both their alienation from our society, and our view of them. As Broomfield says, “We don’t know who they are or what they’re doing, and we don’t want to know. They are the hidden presence.”
But the main factor behind the tragedy, and one which shadows the lives of the workers Broomfield follows, is the role of the supermarkets and the food industries that serve them.
The film’s central character Ai Qin is wonderfully played by Ai Qin Lin, who was herself once an illegal immigrant. She dreams of earning enough money to care for her young child. She and her family raise £13,000 to pay gangs in her home town in Fujian province, China, to get her to Britain.
Ai Qin is picked up on arrival by a gangmaster, Mr Lin, taken to an already overcrowded house in Thetford, Norfolk, and given false documents to apply for work in the local meatpacking and vegetable picking industries.
She and her fellow workers are exploited every step of the way – by Mr Lin, who takes his cut in rent, and by the employment agencies, which find any excuse to take cuts from their earnings.
But Mr Lin’s life is only one step better than that of the illegal workers. And the agencies, whose staff are the grateful recipients of bribes, are only one part of a network of corruption that goes all the way to the top.
Mr Lin drives the band from one workplace to another – and on to Morecambe, where he has heard good money is to be made in the cockle industry. At first, they pick cockles during the day, but after a brutal attack by a gang of local pickers, they decide to go picking at night.
The rest is tragic history. In one of the most poignant scenes, reluctant to phone the authorities for help, they call their mothers in China to tell them what is happening. Ghosts will haunt every one who sees it for days after.
Migrant workers need to get organised
Nick Broomfield worked closely with journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai to research his new film. She spoke to Socialist Worker about the exploitation of migrant labour
Ghosts is based on an undercover report that I did following the Morecambe Bay tragedy.
At that time, I got a job from a Chinese gangmaster in Thetford, Norfolk, and was sent to work for Grampian Country Pork, which supplies Sainsbury’s.
The original story tells the exploitation that is the everyday experience of undocumented Chinese workers in Britain.
I was happy to see that a British filmmaker like Nick Broomfield was interested in visualising this experience.
I think that the Morecambe Bay tragedy opened the eyes of many people in Britain.
We can no longer pretend that migrant workers’ deaths are not our responsibility, as many people did after the Dover tragedy in 2000 when 58 Chinese people suffocated in a container as they were being smuggled into the country.
At Morecambe Bay, Chinese workers lost their lives selling their cheap labour to the big corporations, producing products to be consumed in Britain and abroad. British society can no longer say, “It’s none of our business.”
The only thing that came out of the tragedy, unfortunately, is the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act of 2004. This set up the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, but so far it has been an ineffective bureaucratic machine.
There are loopholes everywhere in the licensing process, and many gangmasters are still violating licensing standards and breaking the law.
Marx described middlemen such as gangmasters as “parasites”. But these parasites cannot exist without those who feed them – the big corporations that rely on cheap agricultural labour.
The question is how we fight the big corporations. I believe that the real solution is organising workers.
We cannot rely on the supermarkets and their suppliers to change their ways. Workers need to be organised in order to fight their exploitation.
Standing up to the power of the supermarkets
“The places the Chinese immigrants work in aren’t one-off mum and dad type operations. This is British industry – mainstream,” Ghosts director Nick Broomfield told Socialist Worker.
“And there’s hypocrisy. When told about the situation, the supermarkets just say, ‘Oh sorry, we didn’t know. We won’t work with so and so again.’ But nothing changes.
“The passing of the Gangmasters Act was very cynical, because nothing basically is going to change.
“Until the supermarkets are targeted and made responsible for the way their food is produced, nothing is going to change.
“But who is going to take them on? They all make big contributions to both political parties. They are unbelievably powerful.”
Broomfield admits he was surprised at just how dependant the British economy is on the exploitation of illegal, and legal, immigrant workers:
“We need them for the economy we have. And it’s so disappointing how Labour has been so mealy mouthed about the issue.
“Trade unionists who are trying to do work around agricultural labour, for example, are being frustrated.”
He says the decision to target the supermarkets in Ghosts made his job as a filmmaker very difficult:
“They are so litigious. We had to prove that the spring onions we filmed being picked were definitely going to such and such supermarket.
“Some people are amazed that we even managed to name them in the film.
“People are so intimidated by these companies who think nothing of spending £2 million on fighting a lawsuit.”
A chain of exploitation
The cockle industry in Morecambe Bay alone is estimated to be worth £8 million annually. But it isn’t the gangmasters – people such as Lin Liangren, jailed for 14 years for his part in the tragedy – who make the big profits.
The gangmasters work mainly for local middlemen, who themselves work for large seafood processing companies – such as Penclawdd Shellfish Processing in Wales, which operates across Britain to make £4 million profits annually.
As Liangren himself said to journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai during his trial, “The ultimate responsibility for the Morecambe Bay deaths lies with the top bosses, the English suppliers and their international clients, who put enormous pressure on us to produce.”
This leads to perhaps one of the most poignant aspects of the whole nightmare. The day of the tragedy was Yuan Xiao, the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day, when many of those who ended their lives two miles out in Morecambe Bay would have much preferred to have taken the day off.
But one of the unspoken conditions surrounding illegal work is that if you refuse a shift, it’s always possible you will not be picked again. As one of the survivors said, “Our boss said we had to work on the sands. There was high demand that day.”
Many of those who drowned and those who survived had never seen the sea. They knew nothing about tides, and many could not swim. They had been given no health and safety training, and did not even know the emergency 999 number.
Not that the police appeared to be much help. One of the survivors told the Guardian at the time, “The police seemed only interested in arresting people rather than letting the Chinese on shore assist with the rescue.”
Liangren is the only person to be jailed following the Morecambe tragedy. And those working around those industries that rely on gang labour say the Gangmasters Act will do nothing to stop another Morecambe-style tragedy happening.
Some believe the act will see illegal workers driven into even more dangerous and unregulated industries. In Morecambe itself, three years after the event, there is still no system to limit the number of cocklers on the sands and no protection against the abuse of gang labour.
In fact, the act merely targets people like Liangren, one step up from the workers he managed, while letting the real culprits – the bosses and shareholders of the big seafood industries, agri-business and the supermarkets – off scot free.
A fund has been set up to help the familes of the victims of the Morecambe Bay tragedy pay off the estimated total of £500,000 in loans. Ghosts opens in cinemas across Britain on 12 January. Go to www.ghosts.uk.com