Socialist Worker

Victims of prejudice and exploitation

Issue No. 1888

THE QUICKSANDS of Morecambe Bay became a grave for 19 Chinese workers last week. Their job was to pick cockles for low wages, working all hours in dangerous conditions, with no rights. Some of the last tabloid articles they would have seen were about how people from abroad 'are heading to Britain to leech on us' and branded them all 'benefit tourists'.

This is the worst disaster at work since 1988, when 167 men died after a fire on the Piper Alpha oil and gas platform in the North Sea. The scale of the Morecambe Bay tragedy even wrung shock and sympathy from the right wing press. These are the latest deaths among desperate people who come to Britain hoping for the chance to scratch out a better life.

There have been three less publicised cases of deaths of migrant workers in the last few months. The whole debate since last week's deaths has focused on whether New Labour should introduce laws to stop abuse by gang masters, who make money by providing casual labour.

But ministers made it clear they would only make minimal changes. New Labour have pushed further the Tory idea of deregulation of the labour market. Workers in the building industry face subcontractors, dangerous conditions and no job security. New Labour exempted agricultural workers from the minimum wage.

Migrant labourers are at the sharp end of what New Labour wants-more 'flexible' working with agency and temporary workers. New Labour knows that big business profits from the cheap, casual labour. The cockles that the Chinese workers picked go to the big corporations, not to small-time producers.

The big supermarkets get fruit, vegetables and meat from a web of suppliers. Their main concern is price, not how labourers are treated. Many migrant workers in Britain are providing goods that go straight to multinationals to make a fat profit from.

Ministers may talk about targeting gang masters, but they are a symptom of the problem, not the root cause. New Labour fuels the right wing argument that asylum seekers and migrants should not have the same rights that anyone else might expect. Refugees can be locked up and denied any food, shelter or benefits.

Every attack and clampdown by David Blunkett encourages the scapegoating and terrible treatment of vulnerable people. It ensures that they have all their rights taken away, that they are driven to dangerous, low paid jobs and makes people unlikely to speak out against their treatment.

New Labour only wants migrant workers who'll fill up the labour shortages in low paid, low status jobs, and who they can just as quickly kick out when those workers are no longer needed.

The right wing press is lining up new victims with hysterical claims that '1.6 million Gypsies' will 'flood in' from Eastern Europe when ten extra countries become European Union members in May. This is a long way off the 5,000 to 13,000 migrant workers that a well-researched report by University College London last year estimated are likely to come to Britain from these countries.

Many of these workers are likely to end up in jobs like cockle picking in Morecambe Bay, hoping they live long enough to gather a bit of money together. New Labour praises the system we live in, where money and trade freely cross borders and organisations like the European Union and WTO champion deregulation and curb workers' rights.

Yet workers who try to move around face abuse and exploitation. The government and their big business friends are the ones who have the blood of Morecambe Bay on their hands.

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What We Think
Sat 14 Feb 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1888
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