modern slavery

The Gangmasters Licensing Act was put in place following the tragedy

Once known only for its vast flatlands and coastal vistas, Morecambe Bay now conjures up far darker memories.

In 2004, the estuary found itself synonymous with “the underbelly of globalisation” when 23 Chinese cockle pickers were swept away by the tide and killed. The impact of that day still reverberates, found Alan Dein in Aftermath (Radio 4, 8 February, 11am).

“Harrowing images of lifeboats and helicopters desperately searching for survivors in the dark” linger in the collective memory of the area, according to locals like Keith Budden. For weeks before the tragedy, many had warned of the “madness” of unchecked cockling gaining pace in the bay, shifting 35 to 40 tonnes per day, with Chinese gangmasters taking advantage of this “bonanza” to send out illegal migrants in the dead of night. “People were coming down with no clue on what time the tide came in,” said Budden.

Scarred by past mistakes, the bay often sits empty now. Any cockle pickers must secure a permit and sit through a safety course before venturing out. And changes aren’t only at a local level. Tragic lessons learned from Morecambe Bay prompted parliament to introduce the Gangmasters Licensing Act that same year.

But for former detective Nick Gradwell, who led the investigation, the changes may not be enough, with “hidden communities” still subject to the exploitation of criminal gangs and industry loopholes. Which, as he and other Morecambe Bay residents all agreed, is reason enough to keep its harrowing past alive.