Socialist Worker

Cockle bay survivors recount their ordeal

HELEN SHOOTER reports on the plight of Chinese migrant workers–and the efforts of campaigners to fight for them

Issue No. 1911

A GROUP of workers in Merseyside had a “miracle escape” two weeks ago, according to firefighters. The minibus they were travelling to work in crashed into a lorry.

But you may not have noticed this reported in the national press. The 16 workers were Chinese cockle pickers.

The accident comes after the tragedy of 21 Chinese cockle pickers who were drowned working in nearby Morecambe Bay in February. Two more are still missing, presumed dead.

And four years ago in Dover 58 Chinese people suffocated in the back of a lorry trying to get into Britain.

“We said that another tragedy was waiting to happen—that this situation would continue if government policy wasn’t changed,” says Jabez Lam of the Chinese rights organisation Min Quan.

As news broke of the minibus accident, campaigners were meeting in London to discuss the plight of Chinese workers.

One of the Morecambe Bay survivors, who did not want to be identified, spoke at the meeting through a translator.

“I was picking cockles when I saw the water coming in. I managed to swim to the shore. When I got there I was cold and shaking,” he said.

“I didn’t know then that so many had died. I knew there were still people stuck in the bay. I wanted to go on the police boat to help rescue them, but they refused to let me.

“Later I got angry and upset that the police didn’t allow some of the survivors to go out and help save them.

“I believe if the police had been doing their job properly and allowed us to help, there might have been a lot more survivors.”

In the wake of these tragedies New Labour ministers mouthed words of regret—then rammed through more laws that may lead to more deaths.

In May the government made employers responsible for checking the immigration status of their workers. So more workers will be forced to find jobs in dangerous circumstances just to make a living.

“I knew everyone who perished in the water. They looked on me as a mother and a sister,” said Gina Tan, a Morecambe Bay resident who has helped Chinese workers as they moved into the area.

“These people work very hard. They break their backs in Morecambe Bay. When the tragedy happened they were cold and frightened, but they were treated worse than animals.

“All the Chinese who were rescued were taken to the police station. The quality of the interpreters was very bad, so they did not know their rights. Since then the police and immigration have been all over them.”

Gina described how one of the police was heard using the offensive term “Chinky”. That officer had to be removed from the case, she added.

The Morecambe Bay survivor was one of several arrested as they recovered in a van after their ordeal. He was taken to a police station and held for 30 days.

The police eventually said he had been cleared and released him. But nobody wants to employ him, he says, despite the fact he now has a work permit.

The Mail on Sunday recently ran an article about cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay, buried away in its reviews section. “It is impossible not to feel compassion for them,” the journalist admitted.

Yet the right wing press—and politicians of every colour—find it all too easy to feel no compassion. The families of the Dover 58 are still being denied any compensation for the death of their loved ones.

“The compensation scheme is open to everyone in Britain, regardless of their nationality,” said Mark Ryan, a lawyer for the families. “But the families’ claim has been rejected because the victims ‘voluntarily engaged’ in an ‘unlawful act’. They were human beings and deserve to be treated as such. Our fight goes on.”

“The shock and hurt I felt at the time is as real now as it was then. And the families relive it daily,” said his colleague Amie Tsang. “There are 93 parents who lost a son or daughter, 34 spouses who lost a husband or wife. There are 68 children who have lost their father or mother. Whole villages were devastated by the event.

“For many the clock stopped on 18 June 2000. I had a letter recently from the father of one of the Dover 58 who wrote, ‘I still cannot believe my son died. He only lived in this world 20 years. We are an old couple who cannot work any more. Tears run down my face while I write this letter.’

“I hoped this appalling event would not occur again. Then there was the terrible tragedy at Morecambe Bay. I have met with their families too and pledged, again, to fight on their behalf.”

For more information on Min Quan and the struggle for Chinese workers’ rights, go to

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Sat 24 Jul 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1911
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