How Spain's insatiable appetite fuels a desperate pursuit of cockles in Morecambe

IoS Investigation: Gangmasters questioned after migrant workers drown are small fry in an industry driven by huge overseas demand
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The Independent Online

A Spanish-based multinational seafood company has emerged as a key source of income for middlemen employing Britain's £1-a-day migrant Chinese cockle pickers, and may provide clues as to why 19 people met their deaths in Morecambe Bay, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Conservas Dani, which is chaired by the multi-millionaire chairman of Spanish first division club Espanyol, took demand for British cockles to new heights when it moved to the UK two years ago.

An intensification in cockling across the UK culminated in the deaths of 17 Chinese immigrants and two other people who drowned in the dark engulfed by Morecambe Bay's notorious incoming tides. Sixteen others survived the disaster nine days ago.

On Friday, David Eden, a director of a Liverpool-based company, admitted at an extraordinary press conference that he agreed to employ the Chinese cocklers three weeks before the tragedy. But Mr Eden, who along with his father was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter following the deaths, is blaming British racism and bureaucratic failings for the disaster.

Mr Eden is only a small and occasional player in the industry. The intensification of the industry has been driven by Conservas Dani, based in Vilassar de Mar near Barcelona, which has also developed operations from China to Chile in its drive to meet massive demand in Spain - which is the seafood capital of Europe and second only to Japan in its consumption. Dani's products are a household name in Spain by virtue of the fact that Espanyol, the club chaired by the company's wealthy owner, Daniel Sanchez Llibre, carries the distinctive Dani logo on its shirts.

But in 2002, the company was starved of countless Spanish cockles after the Prestige oil tanker disaster destroyed Europe's finest cockle and mussel beds near its principal canning plant at Carnota, in Galicia. Shellfish collecting was suspended for months until the tainted beaches were cleaned, prompting a drive to exploit alternative sources.

In the same year, the firm began its relentless pursuit of British cockles, moving into Britain under the trading name of Dani Foods by buying an old family-run cockling firm, Jones, in Penclawdd, South Wales. About 18 months ago it opened a plant at Boston in Lincolnshire, where cockles are dredged by boats. It is now in the process of opening a second in South Wales.

Until Dani moved in, cockling opportunities for the Chinese and their gangmasters had been limited by the British cocklers' intense dislike of the Chinese work ethic. Once aware of a new cockling bed, the Chinese turned up in vast numbers, even in areas that the British had given up as a lost cause. "If there's a cockle half a mile away and nothing in between, they will find the cockle. They wipe out all the work in a few days," one insider said this week.

Another large buyer, the Dutch firm Heiploeg, known in Britain as Wirral Seafoods, refuses to take their cockles.

For the British gangmasters who employed Chinese cocklers, Dani's arrival provided a major opportunity. Two North Wales men in particular have made sure that Chinese workers were on tap to meet the company's demand for more cockles, which is greater than any other buyer's.

"Dani seemed to want to buy every cockle in Britain," said one source. Like all others in this industry, he will not be named.

"There were 200 Chinese out there. Somebody had to buy their stuff and it was [Dani], among others," said another source, who heads a gang of 20 British pickers.

"Because they have been desperate for quantities they have raped the beds," another senior industry figure said. "They've been at it for two years, taking more and more cockles."

At its Barcelona factory late last week, the company could not provide anyone to comment on its purchasing policy and explain if there were procedures to establish the working conditions of those at the bottom end of the chain. Dani Foods' manager Ashley Jones insisted that he bought only from English sellers and paid more than other buyers. His telephone cut out before he could explain who worked for the English sellers, and later he could not be reached.

The Independent on Sunday has established that in the week before the Morecambe Bay disaster, Dani was asked by British cocklers not to buy Chinese-picked cockles. The warning came amid an unprecedented protest against the Chinese. British workers threatened to boycott firms that took cockles from the immigrants.

At first, an English gangmaster took the Chinese on to the Wharton Sands, scene of the tragedy. But word of the cocklers' ultimatum got around and all the usual buyers complied. This appears to have been the trigger for a Chinese man to telephone the Liverpool Bay Fishing Company, owned by 60-year-old David Eden and his son David, 33, known in the industry as Tony.

The firm is a small player with little interest in cockles but, according to Mr Eden Jr, after a 20-minute meeting with the man at the firm's Liverpool factory, a deal was struck for £15 a bag. The Edens were arrested on suspicion of manslaughter last week, but in an extraordinary statement on Friday shifted the blame on to fishing authorities and "racist" British cocklers.

As a result of the Edens' involvement, a group of 35 Chinese in orange waders and lime-green waterproofs, turned up again on Thursday 29 January, one week before the disaster. A group of 100 British tried to warn them off in the beach car park. But the Chinese reacted furiously until one of the British shouted "gun", fearing that one of the Chinese was reaching for one. The British group scattered and the Chinese went out to gather cockles.

A number of catastrophes befell the immigrant workers in the ensuing seven days. British cocklers admit that Chinese produce was torched and destroyed by diesel.

When bad weather and limited cockling time kept British cocklers off the beds on the day of the disaster, the chance of a clear run at the beds must have seemed appealing to the Chinese. The tide times allowed them just three hours of cockling before dusk, but they made the fateful decision to go out.

Last night, the MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, Geraldine Smith, said cockle buyers had a major part to play in ensuring adequate working conditions in industries such as cockling.

"The ethics of who people are buying from is a vital part of the regulation that is needed," she said. "The major supermarkets have already been contacting me to tell me that their customers want to be sure of ethical trading, and this must be looked at as we move forward."