TCS Daily

Harvest of Blame

By Louis James - March 12, 2004 12:00 AM

February 5, 2004. Morecambe Bay, Lancashire. Thirty people, mostly poor Chinese migrant workers, were caught miles from safety by racing tides as they collected shellfish. A husband watched in horror as his wife was swept out to sea. Another man used his cell phone when the icy water was up to his chest and called his family back in China to ask them to pray for him ...

As tragic as the 19 resulting deaths were, the story did not immediately seem rife with major public policy concerns. The response, however, makes the event seem well worth a second look. Within the UK government and without, many people are calling for new regulations. A bill has been introduced. Too bad it took so many deaths to get the ball rolling. One local "cockle picking" company owner, apparently in the business for many years, claimed: "For 15 to 18 years we have been knocking on doors trying to tell the authorities we need regulations." And we all know that regulations would have saved the lost lives, right? Well, maybe.

We do know that many regulations serve as formidable barriers to starting a business. Even a simple requirement, such as filling out a form, can be a serious challenge to an immigrant who doesn't know the language well. It would be uncharitable, however, to speculate that our respectable local businessman would love to see the flood of cheap competition regulated out of existence, so let us turn to matters less speculative.

According to reports, most of the Chinese workers in question were illegal immigrants or asylum seekers, smuggled into England at great expense to their families back in China. Why were they there? It was not because UK beaches are so much nicer for tanning than Chinese ones. Cockle picking was not their hobby. No, these people came because there is scant opportunity for them in their overpopulated, authoritarian homeland. The stories are rather lurid. Human smuggling. Big Bad Business (the Morecambe Bay beds alone are estimated to contain a harvest worth £6 million, but the workers get £8 to £10 per day). Up to 40 people living in single houses with little food and poor heating. The "gang bosses" are said to have sped away from the scene when their "slaves" were caught in the flood. But there were no chains on the "slaves".

Why would those poor people take such abuse? It's the same reason poor people from all over Central and South America trek thousands of miles to try to sneak into the U.S. They are destitute. There is no opportunity where they live. In many cases, they fear for their lives, not from common criminals, but from criminals in uniforms. They desperately want to make a little money to send home -- to try to build a better future for their families. The need is so strong, there are some 3,000 "gang masters" said to be working in the cockling industry, evading taxes to the tune of £100 million per year. No wonder the government seems to have decided that regulating the business might not be such a bad idea after all.

Greater regulation -- and vigorous enforcement -- may well have kept these sad people out of Morecambe Bay, but it wouldn't have stopped them from looking for work. Any work. And if all the legal, low-paying, arduous, and dangerous work is regulated out of their reach, they will not hesitate to break laws to get something else. Some will even accept indentured servitude in the world's oldest trade -- what else can they do?

Interestingly, the gang bosses who left those 30 people to their fate on 5 February are being sought on charges of manslaughter. With everyone the press can get hold of saying that Morecambe Bay was dangerous, and a double drowning just the week before (not to mention all the warning signs), it seems unlikely that all those people were really completely unaware of the danger. The victims were desperate adults who knew they were breaking laws, taking on difficult, dangerous work. That's exactly what they came for, the niche that enabled them to make more than they could back home.

As unscrupulous as the gang bosses appear to have been, were they really to blame? How about the system that forced the victims to their desperation? What about ... China? A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said, "The Chinese Government attaches great importance to the incident." No doubt they do. The last thing they want is questioning about why people are so desperate to leave China. It might cause people around the world to think even less of China's communist workers' paradise than they already do - not that world opinion matters that much to China's rulers. It might also endanger all the hard work they've put into becoming a more favored trading partner, and cash flow does seem to matter to China's rulers. "We are ready to work with the British side to jointly crack down on international criminal activities, like the illegal smuggling of people." We'll just bet they are.

Louis James is CEO of Free-Market.Net and Senior Vice President of, an educational organization focused on teaching young people about liberty. He last wrote for TCS about climate change media hype.


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