Mon, Sep 12, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Trial begins for British cockle-picking tragedy

GANGMASTERS Five people are in court for charges related to manslaughter and facilitating illegal labor after 21 Chinese migrants drowned in Morecambe Bay

AFP , PRESTON, ENGLAND

The trial of five people charged in connection with the Morecambe Bay cockle-picking tragedy in which at least 21 Chinese migrants drowned opens today.

On February 5, 2004, the workers were just off the northwest English coast picking cockles, a kind of shellfish, when they drowned in fast-rising tidal waters. Besides the 21 known dead, all from the Fujian and Liaoning provinces of China, a further two people are still missing and presumed dead.

Plight of migrants

The disaster cast a spotlight on the plight of Chinese and other foreign migrant workers, many of them in Britain illegally, and the so-called "gangmasters" that hire them on low wages to do manual labor.

The trial is to begin at 10:30am in Preston Crown Court, 40km south of Morecambe, before judge Richard Henriques. The court is to select a jury today with the opening statements to be made tomorrow.

Lin Laing Ren, 28, is charged with 21 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to commit facilitation -- an offense relating to the organization of illegal immigrants -- and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Zhao Qing Xiao, 20, is charged with conspiracy to commit facilitation and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. The pair live together in Liverpool, northern England.

Lin Mu Yong, 30, from Liverpool, is charged with facilitation.

David Eden, 62, and his 34-year-old son, also David Eden, from Prenton near Liverpool, are charged with breaching immigration and labor law. They run the Liverpool Bay Fishing Company.

Morecambe Bay is known for its treacherous quicksand and fast-rising tides, which can come in quicker than a person can run. The local coastguard regularly have to rescue stranded cocklers.

In August of last year, 136 people had to be rescued after a tractor collision four miles out, thought to be the result of a turf war between rival Scottish and Chinese cockle-picker gangs. The tide in the bay can rise up to 10.5m and fall back 12km away from the shore.

Last year's June inquest into the deaths heard that victims phoned their loved ones with pleas for help as they drowned.

To confirm the identities of the dead, Lancashire Police officers travelled to China to take DNA samples from relatives. Britain's Home Office funded their repatriation once they were identified.

It is thought that at least 3,000 gangmasters -- employing up to 100,000 workers, many of them illegal immigrants -- operate in fields such as shellfish collection, agriculture, food processing and packaging.

In July 2004, Prime Minister Tony Blair's government adopted legislation aimed at reining them in.

The Gangmasters Licensing Act requires regular inspections to make sure that gangmasters comply with the law in areas such as immigration, housing and social security. However, the authority may not begin issuing licenses until late 2005 and there could be no raids on the worst offenders until the middle of 2006.

Snakehead gangs

There are still concerns about what is happening to Chinese and other workers who may have paid large sums of money to "snakehead" gangs to be smuggled into Britain, and whose presence is unknown to the authorities. In June 2000, 58 Chinese died of suffocation in the back of a Dutch truck, trying to enter Britain illegally.

The court intends to visit Morecambe Bay on Sept. 21, weather and tide permitting. The town of Morecambe is a fading seaside resort across the bay from the mountains of England's picturesque Lake District. The bay is Britain's second largest but it has the country's biggest inter-tidal sandflats and mudflats, covering 310km2.

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