A decade on from the tragedy at Morecambe Bay which saw 23 Chinese workers lose their lives, vulnerable workers are still at risk of abuse, injury and even death at work, the TUC is warning today (Wednesday).
On the evening of 5 February 2004, 23 untrained and inexperienced men and women were drowned by an incoming tide off the Lancashire and Cumbrian coast as they collected cockles.
In the wake of the tragedy the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) was established, and since it began operating in 2006 it has been working tirelessly to prevent further exploitation of vulnerable, mostly migrant, workers.
Through its licensing system the GLA has forced employers to improve working conditions, and made it harder for rogue employers to undercut reputable firms who treat their workers well and pay them a decent wage. But the TUC fears this will no longer be the case following government changes last year to the remit of the GLA.
Since October the GLA is no longer responsible for regulating the forestry sector, land agents or cleaning contractors operating in the food processing industry. The TUC believes this means that exploitation of workers is increasingly likely, as bad employers realise there is little chance of them getting caught out.
And since last spring, the GLA no longer automatically inspects businesses when they first apply for a licence. The GLA’s own research suggests that as many as one in ten rogue gangmasters could be slipping through the net in this way.
Removing automatic inspections means there is no deterrent to stop unscrupulous employers previously penalised for bad practice returning to operate in sectors no longer monitored by the GLA, warns the TUC.
By watering down checks on agencies and no longer making sure they are paying staff properly, abiding with basic employment law, or operating safe workplaces, the TUC fears the government is putting hundreds of thousands of vulnerable workers at risk of abuse, accident, injury – and even death.
Instead of reducing the scope of the GLA, its remit should be extended to other high-risk sectors including construction, hospitality and social care, says the TUC.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The horrible events of Morecambe Bay are etched in all of our memories. The tragedy showed how vital it is that there is someone to check on workers’ conditions, which is why having automatic inspections is so important.
“The GLA provides vital safeguards for people working in high-risk industries, it ensures that people are paid the minimum wage and makes sure apprentices are not exploited. It also increases consumer confidence that workers who help prepare their food are not being mistreated.
“Instead of reducing the GLA’s ability to protect workers, the biggest testament the government could pay to what happened at Morecambe Bay would be to extend the reach of the GLA so that rogue employers know that there is no hiding place for those who break the law.”