20 years ago, on the beach of Morecambe Bay, 23 migrant workers illegally smuggled into the U.K. drowned while picking cockles on the beach. A subsequent investigation revealed that criminal gangmasters had forced the migrants to work in these highly dangerous conditions leading to a raft of new laws aimed at protecting workers from forced labor and modern slavery. But according to The Conversation, campaigners claim the situation in the U.K. for exploited workers has gotten even worse.
Modern slavery from chickens to flowers
Modern slavery affects an estimated 130,000 people in the U.K. today and 50 million globally. The Chinese migrant workers being forced to collect cockles that night were working without help and had not been given basic information about the local tides. While this avoidable disaster served as a wake-up call about the extent and dangers of modern slavery, the issue is far from solved. Researchers in the U.K. have found modern slavery infesting multiple sectors and supply chains across the U.K.
“A U.K. flower distributor told us that many of their U.K. growers pose more risk in terms of modern slavery than their Colombian flower farms do.”
And as demonstrated by the Morecambe Bay tragedy, modern slavery is not just a business risk. For vulnerable workers living under modern slavery who are often untrained and ill-equipped, it can mean risking their lives.
Protections on paper but not in practice
After the tragic deaths at Morecambe Bay, legislation was introduced requiring all gangmasters to obtain a license to do business. The new laws also set standards for health and safety, pay, accommodation and established a licensing body to safeguard workers’ welfare and provide a legal framework for prosecuting criminal gangmasters. These deaths also contributed to the Modern Slavery Act by helping raise awareness about what modern slavery really encompasses.
Speaking about the disaster, researcher Gary Craig said:
“… (the tragedy) expanded understandings of modern slavery from involving the sexual exploitation of a few hundred women to being a ‘numerically significant issue’ that takes many forms.”
Despite this legislation, modern slavery has remained a serious problem in the U.K. On paper, there appear to be more protections and policies to prevent or support those trapped working under forced labor, labor exploitation, or modern slavery. However, the global power imbalances and complex network of illegal activities that facilitate the issue remain unchanged. Modern slavery campaigners, researchers and legal experts continue to criticize the Modern Slavery Act for focusing too much on prosecutions without enough support for victims. The Illegal Migration Act stands poised to put even more people at risk of modern slavery due to the requirement to detain and remove anyone entering the country irregularly as this often includes people who have been trafficked or forced to work. This is likely to make gathering evidence for prosecution of modern slavery even more challenging as victims will be afraid to seek help.
Freedom United stands with the campaigners and researchers calling on the U.K. government to do more to protect victims and prevent abuse. Companies should be held liable when modern slavery is found in their supply chain and victims of abuse should be able to step forward and seek justice without fear. Only then will the 23 migrant workers from Morecambe Bay and the thousands of others who have died working under modern slavery have the crucial impact of real change that their deaths demand.