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British Officials Vow to Tackle Problem of Exploited Migrant Workers - 2004-02-12

The drowning of 19 shellfish gatherers last week on the northwest coast of England highlights the difficulties such workers, who are mostly illegal immigrants, face in Britain.

The problem of illegal migrant workers is ever present in Europe. But it does not usually surface as dramatically as it did last week on the Lancashire coast of northwest England.

Nineteen Chinese immigrants, most of them residing in Britain illegally, drowned while gathering shellfish when they were unable to escape rapidly rising tidal waters. The laborers, most of whom were in their teens or early 20s, were paid as little as $2 a day by their employers, a ruthless group of gang bosses.

Already, a handful of arrests have been made. The assistant police chief for the Lancashire area, Julia Hodson, says the search is on for those who hired and took advantage of these people.

"Gang leaders are at the top of the hierarchy of the list of people that we need to deal with, to speak to, to arrest and to interview," she explained. "At a local level, the chain may be two or three. If we want to go international, then obviously, the complexities and breadth and depth of it will be much greater."

By definition, not all gang bosses' activities are illegal. Harvesting of certain crops by migrant workers is a regulated industry. But in the case of the Lancashire deaths, Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael says the law has been broken and the government will crack down on the offenders.

"Gang masters who operate outside the law cannot be allowed to put workers' lives at risk," he said. "The government will, therefore, ensure that the full force of the law is brought to bear on those committing these crimes."

The government of Prime Minister Tony Blair is backing new legislation to tighten the immigrant labor laws, but the prime minister says fighting the gang bosses in the murky world of labor exploitation is not, and never has been, an easy task.

"It is precisely for that reason that we do remove illegal immigrants from this country," he said. "It is actually thousands and thousands a year. But this is a problem being faced by this government now, by the previous government when they were in power, by governments right around the Western world."

Beth Herzfeld from Anti-Slavery International agrees the problem has been around for a long time. "Certainly, it is a problem in Britain as in other parts of Europe," she said. "It is hard to say the exact scale, because, quite often, the abuse of migrant workers, their exploitation, the forced labor aspects, are hidden. And it is only when cases such as the deaths of Chinese workers in Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, when these sorts of cases come to light that people see the problem. So, there are many cases of exploitation that are going on unnoticed, because they are hidden."

She points out more safeguards must be afforded to those people who find themselves being exploited by unscrupulous gang bosses, and she welcomes the current legislative efforts being made to tighten up controls.

"We certainly welcome the government attention and involvement, but we would encourage at all levels that the people who are being exploited - whether it is traffic victims or in the case of the cockle pickers - that their rights are recognized," she said. "And also that they are protected so that they - in the case of people who have been trafficked - that they are given the support that they need."

She adds, one of the commons ploys is for gang employers to take away their laborers' passports and other identification papers, in order to keep control over the workers. "It is really important that there are laws in place that protect people in this situation," she said. "So that, for instance, one of the areas we are urging the government to introduce policies on is to ensure that people, when they are foreign workers, that they do not have their papers taken by their employers. "At the moment, in the United Kingdom, as in most countries, there is no law protecting migrant workers from the confiscation of their identity papers. And if an employer holds onto these documents, then frequently, this is used to pressure the workers to accept bad pay and poor conditions."

Earlier this week, the prime minister unveiled his plans to establish a national policing body, the Serious Organized Crime Agency, whose aim will be to combat organized crime such as people-smuggling and drug-trafficking. The new agency is to become operational within two years.

Mr. Blair explains the new agency is necessary to combat new threats. "Organized crime needs to be tackled in a different way," he said. "It requires a different court process, different powers, and it requires one agency that brings together the police, the customs and excise, and others that are working on this issue. And we are not going to beat organized crime, if we simply work in the way we worked - you know, 10, 15, 20 years ago."

The tragic death of 19 Chinese workers helped expose the seamy side of the labor market in Britain, and, many hope, raised the problem to the top of the government's agenda.