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Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy: 20 years on, remembering the victims and their impact on modern slavery law

February 5, 2024
By Jill Timms, University of Surrey
Health & Safety Cockles fishing safety Modern Slavery

A cockle on a beach. Photo: Getty Images

On February 5 2004, 23 people drowned while picking cockles on the beach of Morecambe Bay in Lancashire. The victims were illegally smuggled Chinese immigrants, brought via Liverpool by criminal gangmasters, and forced to work in highly dangerous conditions, scavenging for shellfish.

When the tide rushed in that night, only 15 were able to leave the water. Twenty-one bodies were pulled from the sea, with only Li Hua being rescued. A woman’s skull was found six years later, and one body has never been discovered.

If the cocklers had been given even basic information about the treacherous tides or been supervised, they could have survived. This wholly avoidable tragedy served as a dramatic wake-up call to the extent and dangers of modern slavery, which still affects an estimated 130,000 people in the UK today and 50 million globally.

An alert to modern slavery

As a Lancashire lass, I remember the dramatic effect this tragedy had on local feelings toward the plight of immigrants. There was true shock at the level of exploitation uncovered. Morecambe was a favoured local seaside spot for family adventures and bracing walks that was now the site of mass manslaughter and terror.

There had been instances of forced labour reported before Morecambe, not least the 58 Chinese immigrants found dead in a lorry in Essex in 2000. But it was this incident that truly exposed what the world of criminal gangmasters, people trafficking and international labour exploitation looked like in Britain.


The cocklers had reached Britain, were grafting in desperate conditions, but were abandoned and exploited by those who promised them a better life. The lead detective found at the time that around £1 million a day was being funnelled from the UK to China from exploited labour.

Gangmaster Lin Liang Ren was jailed 14 years for manslaughter and facilitation of breaking immigration law. His girlfriend and cousin were also jailed.

How the law has evolved

The Morecambe Bay tragedy had a profound and immediate influence on forced labour and modern slavery protections and new laws to ensure this never happened again.

A few weeks after the tragedy, the government backed a bill to introduce statutory licensing of gangmasters – individuals or businesses who provide workers for agricultural, horticultural and shellfish sectors.

The bill was enacted as the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act in April 2005, making it a criminal offence for gangmasters to operate without a licence, or for unlicensed workers to be used. The law set standards of health and safety, pay, accommodation and training for workers. It also established the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), to safeguard worker welfare and provide a legal framework for prosecuting criminal gangmasters.

In 2017 the GLA became the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), with the added remit of investigating modern slavery in relation to labour abuse. By 2021, it had granted 16,000 licences and successfully prosecuted 77 unlicensed gangmasters.

Eventually, this tragedy contributed to the development of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, bringing to the fore the issue of exploitative work conditions. As researcher Gary Craig explained, the Morecambe Bay disaster expanded understandings of modern slavery from involving the sexual exploitation of a few hundred women, to being a “numerically significant issue” taking many forms.

The Modern Slavery Act was the world’s first law on modern slavery and the first requiring businesses to report how they prevent it in their supply chains. It also introduced the National Referral Scheme, offering support, legal aid and accommodation for victims.

Lessons still to be learned

Despite these developments, modern slavery remains a serious problem in the UK. As I’ve found in my own research with David Bek, it occurs in many sectors and supply chains, from chickens to flowers. A UK flower distributor told us that many of their UK growers pose more risk in terms of modern slavery than their Colombian flower farms do.

And this is not just a business risk, this can be a risk to life for vulnerable, untrained, ill-equipped forced labourers.

On the tenth anniversary of the Morecambe tragedy, in 2014, campaigners claimed the UK situation for exploited workers had actually become worse. After the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act, there are, formally, more protections for those experiencing slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour. But the global power imbalances and complex networks of supply chains that facilitate modern slavery remain.

And campaigners, researchers and legal experts have criticised the Modern Slavery Act, saying it focuses too much on prosecutions and does not provide enough support for victims.

We now have the Illegal Migration Act, which experts have said puts even more people at risk of modern slavery. This is because the act places a legal duty on the home secretary to detain and remove anyone entering the country irregularly – which often includes people who have been trafficked or forced to work.

The government claims the act will focus support on “genuine victims”. But with a lack of intelligence-sharing between UK and Chinese law enforcement, this could make evidence gathering for prosecutions even more challenging, making victims even less likely to seek help.

After 20 years, the tragedy continues to make a physical mark on the Lancashire community. The Praying Shell sculpture dedicated to the victims overlooks the bay. A memorial plaque includes their Chinese names and the red-crowned crow, the national bird of China.

These surround an original poem by Laverne, The Bay of Words, the lines of which feel relevant as ever in today’s tense climate around immigration: “Remember us with love, not fear. We, like you, now live here.”

If you ever suspect modern slavery, report it to the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700 or the police on 101. In an emergency call 999. Your information could save a life.The Conversation

Jill Timms, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Surrey. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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