I’ve been meaning for a while to mention the BBC’s recent coverage of the second anniversary of the tragedy in which 23 Chinese migrant workers died in the sands of Morecombe bay in northwest England. The BBC actually provided some excellent coverage of this story, which coincided with the culmination of a criminal case against one of the ‘gangmasters’ involved in hiring the workers. There was even a programme on BBC 1 which provided dramatised reenactment of the terrible day when the cockle pickers died in the fast-rising tide.
I found Rupert Wingfield-Hayes’ interview with the wife of one of the dead men particularly interesting. Her husband, like almost all of the victims, was from Fujian Province and the article brings home both the real human tragedy of the story but also the bigger picture - the economic and social impact on an area like Fujian that seems to be a sort of incubator for migrant workers:
Despite such stories, and the tragedy of the Morecambe Bay drownings, the flood of young migrants leaving this part of south-east China continues unabated.
In a nearby house, Mrs Li takes me to see her husband’s uncle. Unlike Mrs Li, Lin Yiming lives in a spacious three-storey house.
On the sofa his wife is cradling a tiny baby, only five months old. “This is my grandson,” Mr Lin tells me with pride.
“He was born in Japan but last week my daughter-in-law brought him back to stay with us.”
It turns out Mr Lin’s son and daughter-in-law are both living in Japan illegally.
“They work very hard,” he said. “My son often works two shifts in the factory, the day and the night. That way he can make more money.”
Mr Lin himself spent 10 years in Japan working in factories and restaurants.
“That’s how it works round here,” he said. “Young people go out for 10 to 15 years and save enough money to come home and build a house like this one.”
The evidence is all around the village. Mr Lin’s house is modest compared to some.
There was also recently an excellent comment piece in the Guardian. The author, Hsiao-Hung Pai points out that there is little to stop such a tragedy happening again and lays the blame squarely at the door of New Labour’s asylum and immigration policies:
With asylum rights curtailed and manual-labour migration discouraged, the workers resorted to cockling. In some cases they were looking for better-paid jobs to send money home; some moved from job to job because of the casual, seasonal nature of work demanded by multinational retailers; others were driven out of urban centres into higher-risk occupations by fear of police raids as a result of their vulnerable immigration status.
Lin Liangren blames “bad luck” for the Morecambe Bay tragedy. But Li Jinyun, the widow of one of the victims, believes otherwise: “It’s the working conditions in Britain that killed our loved ones.” Yang Shangjin - a Morecambe Bay cockler who had earlier worked on construction sites in Shanghai - told me he blamed the brutality of capitalism for the tragedy.
Incidentally, I noticed that the author Hsiao-Hung Pai will be standing as a Respect candidate in Newham, East London in this Thursday’s local elections. I hope she’s one of those elected to represent the very diverse community of the area, including of course, its historic Chinese community.