There could be no clearer example of human exploitation and its tragic consequences than the recent events in Morecambe Bay. Nineteen Chinese workers, who had paid a small fortune to agents in order to come to Britain for a better life, were drowned while gathering cockles in dangerous tidal waters of which they lacked local knowledge.
Nothing can absolve those who exploited them — in this ferocious and conscienceless manner — of their moral responsibility, but this should not prevent us from considering what part our current way of treating illegal immigrants played in the tragedy.
While the wages they were paid would have seemed riches by Chinese standards — one former Chinese worker at Morecambe Bay says that she could earn £44 per day — it is clear that workers misjudge the expense of reaching Britain and the cost of living here when they do. Many find themselves able to send much of their earnings to their relatives back in China, but unable to afford the fare home. Like or loathe their work, they are trapped.
The law cannot help these migrant workers because they are outlaws. Their gangmasters can subtract payments from their salary at whim because they have no legal recourse. They are beyond the reach of health and safety rules. Since they are not entitled to work permits, they cannot switch to more attractive employment. Nor are they entitled to state benefits should they fall ill or be injured. They must either continue with the very limited, illegal work opportunities available to them, or starve. This leaves them completely vulnerable to the exploiters who led them to their horrible death. Our insensate policy therefore bears some blame for the events in Morecambe Bay last week.
Large numbers of illegal immigrants and failed asylum seekers are in the same situation as these cockle-gatherers.